By Marc S. Sanders

Whether you’re the storyteller or the viewer/reader, you take a chance with satire.  The darker the satire is, the even greater the risk you take. A film like The Menu, from director Mark Mylod, is one such example. You’ll hate it…like my wife did, despite the lively conversation we had afterwards.  On the other hand, you might love its invention to strike back at an upper class that lacks any clue or respect for the talents of others. Then again, you just might only like it.  Well…at least I liked it.

Ralph Fiennes’ résumé has earned a reputation to intimidate an audience. He is a superb actor who can be absolutely frightening as a Nazi in Schindler’s List, or heartbreaking as a torn affiliate of a deceitful plot like in Quiz Show. He can also go toe to toe as a Greek god against Liam Neeson, or he can demand that James Bond “Stand down!” and strike with snake like glee at Harry Potter. He can also teeter along the antics of the devil himself as he portrays the world’s most esteemed chef in The Menu.

A collection of guests is escorted by boat to a remote island where the finest restaurant is located and run by Chef Slowik (Fiennes), with assistance from Elsa (Hong Chau).  There’s Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a die-hard fan of the chef’s craft with his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is nowhere near as impressed.  Tyler has to remind Margot not to smoke, otherwise it’ll destroy her palette for taste.  There’s an older couple who has frequented the Chef’s dining establishments before and are back for another visit.  There are a pair of restaurant critics. There’s a movie star (John Leguizamo) with his young assistant.  Finally, there is a trio of sophomoric, yuppie businessmen who are here because their last monthly commission likely afforded this exclusive opportunity, and their favorite hockey team was out of town.

When the guests arrive on the island, Elsa gives them a tour ahead of the restaurant where they will eventually dine.  A cabin is displayed to show how the meats are aged over a period of 152 days. Quite specific! One of the yuppies has the audacity to ask what happens if you age it to day 153. I don’t recall Elsa’s response.  I do remember her disdain for the question though. They walk through the lodge where Elsa explains that the entire staff reside and sleep in the one room together. One cot for each person. Odd, but okay. Moving on is a quick pass by the cottage where the Chef resides, and no one is permitted to enter. Oooo!!!! I know one thing I expect to happen.

It is important to note that I opted not to read up on anything The Menu was about.  I didn’t know if I was to see a comedy, drama or horror film.  As this tour continued though, I had eerie recollections of the film Midsommar, directed by Ari Aster. That movie still gives me the bejeebees.  So much so that I could not bring myself to write an article about it.  Like that film, our cast has become isolated in a desolate locale, and the guide could not be more unsettling.  When they arrive at the restaurant, a large horizontal door is thunderously closed behind them. Margot gives a quick look back over her shoulder. This cannot be good.

Lending to the structure of the film, courses are presented with a startling clap of the hands from Chef Slowik. Mark Mylod executes a nice pattern of gracefully displaying text across the screen describing what the next featured course is, along with its fine ingredients.  It is elegant but also only partially revealing of some of the guests. Tyler isn’t the kind of fan that Chef would welcome.  After a request has been made not to take pictures of the dishes, he does so anyway.  He is uncouth with his commentary and clumsy as well.  Additionally, bewildering for Chef Slowik is the presence of Margot. He was not expecting her to attend. Yet, here she is and he cannot understand why.

The Menu does not deviate from its intent to be strange. A bread dish is presented without any bread! Only the dips. Tyler is absolutely impressed. Margot thinks it is ridiculous. By the time, the fourth course has arrived, a shocking presentation is exhibited to the guests and that is where the film takes a graphic turn.

It’s best not to reveal much about the movie.  Its features work if you share the perspective of the guests, particularly Margot. What you are left to decide though is if you accept that dark satirical nature of the piece.  You will or you won’t.

I did not find The Menu to be very symbolic, allegorical, or even a reflection of the natures of social classes who partake in exclusive high-end cuisine.  Chef Slowik has prepared a specific plan for this assortment of guests. The execution and outcome cater to his personal satisfaction and no one else’s.  I guess that’s why I only liked the wit behind the message of the film.  I just could not fully embrace its invention.

My experience with satire typically allows me to think about how people behave and what they can learn from outrageous proposals or extreme actions. Network explores how the world responds to what is proposed for satisfying television audiences while generating business profits.  A film like The Menu delves into grandiose, unheard of actions that will satisfy the one puppet master behind everything you are seeing.  Maybe I was looking for the message the Chef delivers to include my own misgivings and sins and temptations in his overall delivery.  Instead, his machinations rely on these specific guests on this particular night, and so I kind of felt left out of the circle. As the guests are specifically affected by the developments of the evening, I can’t say I had any care or sense of suspense for them.  Nor did I care for Chef’s own satisfaction as the evening carries on.

The cast is a terrific eclectic assortment. Anya Taylor-Joy is a smart and forthright hero against Ralph Fiennes’ antagonist. A well written conclusion that made me applaud is included by her character’s deductive reasoning. The other players though are not given much fat to chew on in terms of dialogue or scenes.  Their purpose is specifically explained, and then they are left to watch and wait for the climax of the film. I like the veil that is lifted from Margot’s character.  I would have welcomed a little more subtext on the other characters, however. Again, their purpose is laid out, but I think the film, which clocks in at around an hour and forty-five minutes, could have dug a little deeper into the guests sitting at the other tables. Not to mention those few who also serve on the Chef’s cooking staff.

The Menu is an unusual film, like an episode of Tales From The Darkside or The Twilight Zone.  It is limited like a TV episode. I just think it needed two or three more courses to savor just a little more meat on the bone.

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