The subject of the season 2 premiere of Netflix’s foodie docu-series, Chef’s Table, is Chicago’s own Grant Achatz, whose restaurant Alinea specializes in molecular gastronomy, which basically means they’re always turning sugar into a balloon or a waffle into smoke, or whatever it is that makes it worth more than $500 a pop (with wine pairings) over there. What goes undiscussed in the episode is Achatz’s other Chicago restaurant, Next: a slightly more affordable molecular gastronomy experience that dramatically changes its theme every few months (“Next!”). The summer I left Chicago in 2018, I briefly researched the current theme at Next to see if it might be worth blowing one of my remaining paychecks on, only to discover that the concept was “Alinea: 2005-2010.” The theme of one restaurant was another restaurant. Got it.
It’s this self-masturbatory but undeniably funny domain of haute cuisine that takes center stage in Mark Mylod’s The Menu, a toothless but intriguing satire of the world of fine dining and those who pay to indulge in it. Written by Will Tracy (Succession) and Seth Reiss (Late Night with Seth Meyers), The Menu plants a handful of obnoxiously wealthy patrons in the dining room of Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), a celebrated chef who dares to serve them what might just be the last meal of their lives. That is, as long as the beguiling Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) doesn’t threaten the sanctity of, well, his menu.
The Menu takes its time getting cooking, so to speak, letting its audience acclimate themselves with Slowik’s island restaurant Hawthorne, his second-in-command Elsa (Hong Chau), and the other patrons of the evening’s meal. Accompanying Margot is Tyler (the always-game Nicholas Hoult), a preening, over-eager foodie type who boasts of having seen “like, every episode of Chef’s Table.” He knows all of Slowik’s tricks, narrating them both to the uninterested Margot and to the audience.
There’s also the haughty food critic Lillian Bloom (the fabulous Janet McTeer), her yes-man editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), and Anne (the totally wasted Judith Light) and Richard (Reed Birney), two halves of an older, melancholy couple. There’s a trio of tech-slash-finance bros played by Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, and Succession’s very funny Rob Yang. There’s John Leguiazmo playing a movie star whose name is not John Leguizamo, and the head of his production company, Felicity (Aimee Carrero), who is eager to put in her two weeks once the check is paid. And off in the corner is a very drunk older woman: Linda (Rebecca Koon), Slowik’s mom. This sounds like a crowded cast, and it is, but soon The Menu reveals itself to be mostly a two-header with Fiennes and Taylor-Joy at center stage (Hoult and Chau in the wings). The shallow roster of the supporting cast is there to deliver often-funny jokes, but don’t hold your breath for more; though each table is equipped with at least one power player, none of those actors get much room to flex.
The food fetishism and prop design of The Menu are perhaps its most immaculate aspects. The film delivers a winking nod to the Chef’s Table regulars with captions explaining each dish on Slowik’s menu. Having foodie Tyler and critic Lillian as characters in the film means there’s never not at least one person explaining how individual components on the plate add up to a cohesive whole (at least, up until Slowik appears at the head of the kitchen to reframe their theories about what they’ve all been eating). Much of what’s being served looks really, really good, both alien and appetizing. It’s clear that Tracy and Reiss have a firm handle on what makes these restaurants equally ludicrous and enticing.
But what Margot realizes sooner than any of her fellow diners is, well, that the vibe at Hawthorne is fucked: Slowik is intense and bizarre, Elsa is intense and bizarre, the food is more stressful than fun to eat, and though everyone else with a napkin in their lap is ready for a show, Margot can’t summon an appetite. The evening eventually takes a turn for the violent, and here’s where Fiennes finally gets to take his gloves off. As Slowik, Fiennes is wry and unpredictable, a far cry from bigger, showier performances of late like his broad and excellent turns in Hail, Caesar! and A Bigger Splash. It’s some of the most nuanced off-stage work he’s done in a long time, and The Menu is lucky to have an actor at its helm who is at once both surprising and smart.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Taylor-Joy, who is saddled with a tediously underwritten part. Margot is The Menu’s naysayer, refusing to buy into the bit at every turn. She’s meant to be plucky and edgy — cigarettes, leather coat, you get it — but comes off as both dull and lackluster. It doesn’t help that she’s paired alongside Hoult, one of the most dynamic and fascinating young actors of his age group. Though Tyler could fall into broad parody, he brings both humanity and malice to the table. Margot, by comparison, lacks the depth to justify her continued presence at the table, let alone Slowik’s growing fascination with her.
The Menu has several opportunities to go full, nasty nihilism, but more often than not, it tends towards a softer approach, dulling the edge of its satire. That Slowik’s mother is tucked away in the corner for most of the movie ought to feel funnier or odder, but even when she’s splattered in blood midway through the meal, her presence feels like an afterthought. The jokes, though mercifully often and pretty funny, mostly come at the expense of finance guys, actors, wealthy boomers — people whose incompetence and ignorance of the world around them make them easy, crowd-pleasing targets for many “eat the rich”-style satires of late. That’s not to say the comedy doesn’t produce some laughs, but it’s hard to gauge which jokes actually have some bite, and which are just there for the goof of it. At its worst, The Menu feels more like a vehicle for ribbing than it does a complete story.
This empty exercise might feel a bit more poignant if its technicals were up to snuff, but the film also suffers from a visual cheapness, an obvious use of green screen and drab set. It’s meant to be a point of parody that Hawthorne looks, in part, like Lydia Tár’s apartment — all sterile concrete and stone and darkly-stained wood — but its decor lends little to what’s on screen. As the evening at Hawthorne devolves into a relatively tame, if slightly bloody, debauchery, it’s hard not to wish for something more intense, more violent, more surprising. The film is unfortunately tethered to its everywoman anchor in Margot: a passive observer with far too much grounding to gel with the film’s otherwise outlandish elements of farce. The Menu’s insistence on a straight woman does not enhance, but rather dampens the jokes, like over-salting a consummately seasoned plate of pasta.
For a film that takes aim at the cutting edge of gastronomy, The Menu treads familiar ground. We’ve seen this all before, in Knives Out, The Estate, and even Succession itself. The kinds of people who would shell out thousands for a tasting menu certainly suck, and it’s pleasurable to laugh at them. It’s clear that the film thinks these people are useless morons whose actions hurt society, and that restaurants like Hawthorne enable them more than, say, a mom-and-pop diner whose approach to food is much more holistic, perhaps, than “eating the ocean.” Whether that astute bit of class commentary holds up — as either a joke or a thesis, it’s hard to say — as well as macaron batter in a humid apartment, I’ll let you be the judge. By the end of The Menu, the plates are clean, but it’s hard not to walk away wanting a little something more.