There is nothing subtle about “The Menu,” but that’s a large part of its charm. Like Hawthorn, the exclusive upscale restaurant where most of the action takes place, this brutal satire of class division — viewed through the lens of high-end gorging — is ruthlessly focused and gleamingly efficient. And by unabashedly flaunting its crowd-pleasing ambitions, the script (by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy) cheekily skirts the very pretentiousness it aims to skewer.
At Hawthorn, set on its own island in the Pacific Northwest, every dish comes with a side of ego and a lecture on its provenance by Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), a rock-star chef with a drill-sergeant’s demeanor. In his dining room, mere feet from an army of obsequious underlings, drooling one-percenters have each dropped $1,250 to wrap their gums around Slowik’s fabled tasting menu. Among them are a star-struck foodie (Nicholas Hoult) and his last-minute date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy); an arrogant restaurant critic (Janet McTeer); three odious tech workers (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr); and a fading movie star (John Leguizamo) hoping to pitch a culinary travel show. All except Margot have been carefully chosen, and all are about to become players in Slowik’s elaborate opera of humiliation, self-loathing and revenge.
From amuse-bouche to dessert, Slowik’s creations — and the diners’ punishments — grow steadily more bizarre and threatening. In service to a gleefully malicious tone, Mark Mylod’s direction is cool, tight and clipped, the actors slotting neatly into characters so unsympathetic we become willing accessories to their suffering. Fiennes is fabulous as a man so determined to turn food into art that he’s forgotten its very purpose; his disgust for the act of eating has long extinguished any joy in cooking.
“Even your hot dishes are cold,” spits Margot, the audience surrogate and the first to challenge the insult embedded in each course, like the “bread plate” with no bread. Intrigued by her working-class wiliness, Slowik is unsettled: He can see that she’s willing to take him on.
Whisking splashes of horror into culinary comedy (“Don’t touch the protein, it’s immature,” admonishes the forbidding hostess during a smokehouse tour), “The Menu” is black, broad and sometimes clumsy, attacking its issues more often with cleaver than paring knife. Yet everyone is having such a good time, it’s impossible not to join them. The movie’s eye might be on haute cuisine, but its heart is pure fish and chips.
Rated R for slaying, suicide and exuberant oversaucing. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. In theaters.