The proliferation of the dining experience, a celebrity chef driving a prix fixe tasting menu offering a shared experience geared toward the ultra-wealthy, using techniques mere mortals or mass-driven restaurants cannot deliver, has become an interesting phenomenon in the past decade. Las Vegas renaissance in recent years has thrived in its shadow; celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay have perfected their craft with it. The name James Beard has more awareness amongst the plebeian diners that grace their nominees and winners’ establishments. Yet, none are any more pervasive than Chef Julian Slowik, proprietor of Hawthorne, the exotic island restaurant experience at the center of Mark Mylod’s “The Menu,” being served to theaters this weekend.
None of those mentioned qualities grace Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s script. Ralph Fiennes plays Julian Slowik, a stern individual demanding perfection in his isolated island restaurant, where the staff share quarters and the dining experience tells a tale. Slowik has created a team, a rhythm that would be undeniable in any actual establishment. Slowik does not yell like Ramsay, but his eyes do. Fiennes uses his dry, droll humor to center his character; he means business, carrying humility and grace for those who have chosen to dine with him.
Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) are at its rare center. Tyler is the know-it-all who pries at what’s underneath the hood of the kitchen equipment used to prepare the food the diners will enjoy. Margot is a last-minute mystery guest of Tyler’s, and although they come off as a couple on-screen, their mannerisms suggest something different is afoot.
That’s the secret base of the sauce that makes “The Menu” wholesome and worthy of being called an experience. However, the whole meal needs to tell a story, and a more finely crafted story has not been served this year. Reiss and Tracy’s script focuses on the characters, a pseudo ode to class warfare a la “The Triangle of Sadness” from earlier in this Awards season.
Mylod (“Game of Thrones,” “What’s Your Number”) gears his camera toward the characters and the setting. An open kitchen used so guests can observe staff prepping their courses opposite a single, sizeable paned window overlooking the ocean with a room-sized fireplace running the back of the room creates an openness that has a calming, relaxing effect while implying something more sinister will happen. Cinematographer Peter Deming (the “Austin Powers” trilogy, “Mulholland Drive”) captures the elegance and grace of the isolated restaurant, favoring zooms and pans as character moments are revealed. Each menu item has a title card, informing the audience of the various courses being served, with hilarity.
Joining Tyler and Margot is a veritable who’s who of cast and character: John Leguizamo, an actor looking to avoid the spotlight. Reed Birney and Judith Light, a couple with a mysterious connection to another guest and the one nitpick of the character development, Janet McTeer as a hoity-toity restaurant critic, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, and Rob Yang, a trio of investment bankers enjoying the spoils of their victories, star as the other diners. Rebecca Koon plays Linda, the hostess, and Peter Grosz is featured as the Sommelier. Each of these characters is written so that you could easily equate them to the characters in “Murder by Death” or, more accurately, “Ready or Not.”
These characters drive the heart of the menu. We never know which of the who’s who will demand extra sauce or attempt to send an item back to the kitchen because it isn’t prepared to their liking. No one yells “donkey!” in the middle of service; there’s a grace both behind the line and in front of it, guided by Koon’s Linda and Grosz’s Sommelier. On a personal note, I’ve attended two of these tasting menu experiences, one offered by a James Beard-nominated chef in a private home, the second at Gordon Ramsay Steak in Las Vegas, with the chef himself dining in the restaurant. Each of these experiences is as unique as the setting and offer allow for in “The Menu.” Reiss and Tracy got their details right; each course serves the whole experience, and Mylod plays off those details, like a fiddler in a high-end restaurant in the 70s or 80s. Individuality in the experience is less about the food and more about the character.
What Mylod, Fiennes, Taylor-Joy, Hoult, Reiss, and Tracy create from this delectable tasting menu of a story is an experience one won’t forget. Searchlight is betting you’re willing to pay the tab on this elaborate, character-driven film that “The Menu” is getting the widest release of any movie in the studio’s history. Its current 90% on Rotten Tomatoes should indicate just how delicate the menu is.
If I’m waxing overly poetic about “The Menu,” it is because its reputation precedes it. If I’m avoiding details about the film, it is also because its reputation precedes it. I’ve dropped clues to the film’s meaning. The film is less about class warfare; despite the nouveau riche appearances, there is an eclectic mix of characters that offsets this vibe and with purpose. Sure, the per-head cost is pricy. Wouldn’t you pay for an experience like “The Menu?”
More wine with that, sir?