“The Menu”: Tonight’s Special is a 10-Course Massacre

Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes face off as diner and chef in "The Menu".

“No, miss, I will not recite today’s specials in Voldemort’s voice.”

Speaking as someone who’s been in customer service for 34years and counting: when everything goes well, the symbiosis between a service team and their customer — whether a singular exchange or a recurring relationship — makes for a heartening occasion that both sides can appreciate. They pull off the quid pro quo between creator/provider and receiver/consumer, and everybody wins.

When things go wrong between the two parties, the results can be anywhere from mild disappointment to small-scale war. The customer gets full of themselves, or the employees show up in a foul mood, or there’s a miscommunication between the sides that could be resolved with some calm negotiation, yet isn’t. No one wins, everyone’s miserable, and it’s another round of cringing when they look back on That One Time years later.

The Menu falls in the latter column as an extreme worst-case scenario. An evening gone wrong becomes no mere comedy of errors, but an all-out class-war ambush where no one is innocent.

In one corner are the diners. We join the exclusive guest list through one couple’s first date: Nicholas Hoult (an X-Man no more) is Tyler, a young, well-to-do gourmand-wannabe who knows the best chefs by name, follows them online, and recognizes even their obscurest ingredients. His foodie fanboy intensity needs a “get a life” intervention that he’ll never have to hear because guys in suits above a certain pay grade never get lectured. He’s netted himself an invitation to a $1,250/plate dinner at Hawthorne, the poshest place in town, where Chef notifies you when you’re permitted to make reservations. After his original dinner companion backs out, he brings along a substitute named Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy, a New Mutant no more) who’s game even if she doesn’t share his interests. He doesn’t much care if she does — she’s secondary to the meal experience.

In the other corner is Hawthorne’s staff led by Chef Julian (Ralph Fiennes). Their establishment is on a remote island, which of course complements its exclusive reputation and its exotic feel, further separating it from any other five-star, Beard-Award-winning competition in town. It’s literally unapproachable except by the free boat ride that comes with your permission to make reservations. For years Chef Julian has been devising multi-course meals of increasingly more fantastical composition and rare ingredients of the kind you and I will only ever see on Chopped and never in person in our lifetimes. He’s the best there is at what he does, and what he does is always pretty.

Then comes this particular night, when Tyler is among the invitees along with several other luminaries of varying accomplishment levels in various fields. All have been welcomed to this exact dinner for Chef Julian’s own reasons…except Margot. The early courses are eccentric but not necessarily outlandish. Eyebrows are raised when the servers bring a bread course without bread. Several diners rightly scoff at the pretentious speech that prefaces it; Tyler, of course, is thrilled that he “gets it” and gives it 12/10.

As if the non-bread wasn’t troubling enough, next is a course that comes with creepy tortillas bearing pictures of their would-be eaters. Some resemble photos of incriminating acts. Some resemble photos of scenes from earlier in the film, from mere minutes ago. Around this point is when the rich and famous start losing their calm. And the night get worse as courses keep coming and eventually there’s blood. All throughout, Chef Julian and his staff keep their composure, even at precisely planned points when the blood is their own.

And yet, off to one side, Margot isn’t receiving the same treatment. Chef Julian senses she isn’t like the rest. She isn’t even supposed to be here today. And her date is no help — Tyler is loving every minute of it, even when Julian’s merciless gaze turns in his direction.

Given Hawthorne’s price of admission, it isn’t hard to guess all the other guests are awful upper-class sinners who could use a comeuppance. A film about innocent, saintly millionaires being terrorized wouldn’t play and no filmmaker would be boring enough to try it. But anyone who’s watched a lot of HBO’s Succession will recognize the lacerating satirical vibe courtesy of two of that show’s veterans, director Mark Mylod and writer/producer Will Tracy (abetted here by co-writer and CollegeHumor alumnus Seth Reiss). Same as on the show, the wealthy have feelings and weaknesses just like the rest of us, but the drama comes from their mismatched levels of self-awareness, how unrepentantly they revel in their position, how invulnerable they think themselves, and how loudly the sound of their downfalls reverberates when they hit bottom. Honestly, The Menu could’ve been marketed as a canonical Succession holiday special with very little tweaking. (Maybe replace Margot with Willa? Not a perfect match, though. Even she has her blind spots.)

Julian’s motives for the evening’s mayhem require a little explaining, not a lot. Julian is a world-weary perfectionist who has had it with everything, yet who might just have a sliver of humanity left. Fiennes’ performance is an impressive feat in itself, but what’s even more fascinating at times are his employees, loyal to a fault. They’re no interchangeable fast-food workers who laze about, cash the checks, quit without notice and go get rehired someplace else nearby for an extra nickel an hour. Hawthorne’s crew are true believers in their restaurant, their boss, and their sinister meal plan. In between the crowd-pleasing moments of “lol wow rich people suck” (not that I’m against those), one of the film’s harshest critiques is saved for restaurateurs who practically sacrifice their own lives to create such ludicrously upscale bistros specifically to cater to opulent demographics — sometimes because that’s where they think the greatest challenges are, but also sometimes because that’s where the most money is. They’re mad at the rich for being so impossible to please, and yet pleasing those same patrons is their chosen career. They knew the job was dangerous when they took it.

(On a few levels The Menu would make a fantastic double-feature if you paired it with Pig, the 2021 indie flick that starred Nicolas Cage as a former five-star chef who lost everything and retreated to a wilderness shack with only a handful of possessions and his beloved truffle-hunting pig. That much quieter and subtler film likewise takes a scalpel to the misbegotten industry that the Culinary Institute of America and its ilk hath wrought at the behest of the 1%. I might also recommend Hulu’s dramedy The Bear, which has short, nightmarish glimpses of same but focuses most attention on the exact opposite kind of eatery. I’m only three episodes in, but so far mesmerized; updates as they occur.)

Sooner or later we get to why each of the rich are there. We compare and contrast their reactions. Some fight. Some cower. Some are resigned. All are morbidly transfixed and dying to know what’ll happen next. They do love watching a spectacle even when they’re in the middle of it. Like any recurring ingredient in a meal, the violence is parceled out in bite-sized portions and eventually ties all the dishes together. Several scenes aren’t for the squeamish. Then again, neither is hoarded prosperity ad absurdum.

Each course is a chapter unto itself, fronted with glimmering, towering, perfectly sculpted food photography provided by actual professionals from the field, including veterans of Netflix’s Chef’s Table and other shows. The captions dutifully list all the main ingredients. As the battle escalate, those descriptions and still shots never break character, never waver from their responsibility, and get increasingly hilarious as they go. They’re one of the film’s best details, along with the grade-A Succession-level repartee and the performance at the center from Ms. Taylor-Joy. As the war between clientele and waitstaff reaches its climax and the survivors steel themselves for dessert, we’re kept firmly in the corner with Our Hero Margot — the outsider who isn’t like the rest of them and who surprises of her own. (She brought her own secret ingredients, if you will.)

At its most scathingly savory, The Menu may cure you of your own foodie-fanboy impulses and maybe make you think twice before sending a pic of fancy dinners to relatives. But for all the bluster you can already relish in the trailer alone, my favorite part is the final showdown that isn’t reduced to a basic, flavorless knife fight between two adversaries. For some, this is a last supper. For a few, there’s a grace note of sorts — a veritably spiritual reconnection over a particular classic dish that many of the victims wouldn’t have settled for and couldn’t have understood. With one simple off-menu order, one cook and one eater hack away all the frippery and froufrou, and remind us what eating out used to be about. In all its simplicity the moment is sincere, hilarious, awkward, tender, and truthful at once.

And it’s all about the food and the service.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Hawthorne’s staff includes Christina Brucato (Martin Stein’s daughter Lily on Legends of Tomorrow) as an up-and-coming master chef in her own right, should she want it; and Hong Chau (The Whale, HBO’s Watchmen) as the hyper-efficient maitre d’. I saw the film over a month ago and still crack up every time I remember her “explaining” tortillas to puzzled faces.

Their customers include John Leguizamo as a washed-up old actor; Aimee Carrero (the voice of Netflix’s She-Ra herself) as his opportunistic assistant; Janet McTeer (Jessica Jones‘ warped super-mom) as a powerful food critic whose raves boosted Hawthorne in its early days; Reed Birney (House of Cards) and Judith Light (Who’s the Boss?) as two elders who’ve been there several times, but never on a night like this; Narcos‘ Arturo Castro (who was the very, very different Pablo Escobar in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story) as a standard Silicon Valley tech-bro; and, further strengthening ties to that show, Succession‘s Rob Yang as not exactly the same kind of tech-bro. McTeer is far and away the most entertaining of the bunch, along with Paul Adelstein (Prison Break, Private Practice) as her obsequious editor.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Menu end credits, though we do get a lone song credit — for, of all things, “Happy Birthday to You”. Sometimes you have to respect the simplicity of the classics.

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