By Gerald Peary
The Menu serves up a ghoulish and madly entertaining two hours of prime cinema.
The Menu, directed by Mark Mylod. Showing at Somerville Theatre, Apple Cinemas Cambridge, and other theaters around New England.
There’s a grand tradition of crazy, murderous despots ruling over an island going back to H.G. Wells’s malevolent Dr. Moreau and including Ian Fleming’s devious Dr. No, and recently, the masked lunatic behind the death-trip festivities of The Squid Game. Hail a worthy new homicidal maniac, celebrity cook Julian Slowik of The Menu, known by all, simply, as Chef. The backstory: Slowik has been shuttling wealthy guests to his private island for quite a time, providing them extraordinary gourmet feasts for an agreed-upon hefty price, $1250 a head. But somewhere along the line, Chef has reached his tipping point. His boiling point. He’s snapped.
Real-life supercook Charlie Trotter once said accidentally into a camera, “Being a chef would be great, except for the customers and the staff.” Chef not only would endorse Trotter’s takedown of the restaurant world, but he is determined to do something concrete about it. We meet this week’s group of hoity-toity customers at the opening of The Menu as they are embarking for the island. If Chef has his loony way, perhaps none will leave his island alive? The same with his staff? Perhaps a kamikaze ending even for himself?
Catastrophe at the end of the many-course meal? After a mellow, cleansing dessert?
It’s a gruesome premise for a ghoulish and madly entertaining two hours of prime cinema. With a malevolent smile on my face, I enjoyed every scabrous comic moment of The Menu. I had a jolly time seeing the spoiled superrich cast tumbling one by one. But lots of the enjoyment was also supplied by the high drama whipped up by Ralph Fiennes’s stupendous presence as Chef. What a chilling villain: a vainglorious restaurateur with acute Jim Jones tendencies whose kitchen staff jump in fascist unison to his orders, and who is prone to extreme meltdowns: “NO! THERE ARE NO SUBSTITUTIONS!” He’s also a fragile Midwest mama’s boy, and can be reduced to sniveling and tears if someone he respects disapproves of his colossal dishes.
So who has been lured to this island trap? Anybody of worth? Certainly not three multicultural Wall Street amigos, united in their smugness and greed. And a big “no” to an imperious, ultra-snobby food critic (a scathing caricature by Janet McTeer) and her haughty, effete journalist companion (Paul Adelstein). It’s not clear what Chef has against a cranky older couple to pick them as lethal targets. But sometimes his choices are maddeningly arbitrary: he’s brought aboard a kind of “Sly” Stallone over-the-hill movie star (John Leguizamo) because, Chef explains, he wasted a rare day off from the kitchen seeing this has-been’s latest awful picture. Revenge! There’s also a boozy old lady at a corner table who we find out is Chef’s mother: get rid of this inebriated matriarch. Finally, there’s a sycophantic young man (Nicholas Hoult) who barely registers the horrors about him because he’s so busy savoring the food. He shamelessly sucks up to Chef. On this evening, a very bad idea!
None of those above have a chance against Chef, even when bonded together. Decadent weaklings. When all the men are allowed to attempt to run away across the island (an homage to the famous Richard Connell short story and 1932 movie The Dangerous Game?), it’s only minutes before all are recaptured. Only one person aboard proves capable of standing up to Chef, the one gatecrasher to the lavish dinner, and the one who cares not one iota for Chef’s fussy cuisine. That’s Margo, a high-class hooker who distinctly does NOT have a heart of gold. But she has street smarts and survival instincts, and she’s played with great élan, with ballsy swagger and ultra-confidence by the foxy actress Anya Taylor-Joy. The Last Girl Standing, to quote a slasher movie trope, likes eating cheeseburgers, thank you. With a side of fries.
The unsettling, effective cinematography comes from Peter Deming, famed for shooting Mulholland Drive. The director is TV’s Mark Mylod, who has already dealt with barbarians, making Game of Thrones and choreographing materialist sleazes doing Succession.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston; ex-curator of the Boston University Cinematheque; and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema; writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty; and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His latest feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, has played at film festivals around the world.