Grand dining as nightmare

The Menu is a satire on high-end celebrity chef restaurants, and such aspects of some of them as a chef who is in your face, kitchen that is visible, staff who are regimented and cult-like, and an elaborate tasting menu (or whatever the hell it is) where everything is supposed to be brilliant and special, looks strange, has to be explained, and is meant to be adored - and take at least four hours. But by the time Seth Reiss and Will Tracy's clever screenplay has gotten a little into the collective meal of the special diners, then it turns into a horror movie. And that's good too. But if you actually might go to fancy restaurants, you might not want to have nightmarish associations added to them the way The Menu tries to. And yet the movie leaves one disappointed. The amuse-bouche of a trailer suggested something more sweeping, more scary, and more maniacally worked out than quite happens.

I do remember regularly being hungry after a gourmet meal with fine wine. But it doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the dining experiences. I also grew up on books by A.J. LIebling illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans. On the idea that gourmet and gourmand blended into each other. My father was a wine connoisseur who introduced me into the British idea of a "savoury" at the end of a meal, along with calling Bordeaux "claret." In short, I had early hints of eating well as fun, a celebration of life. Self important modern fancy restaurants threaten to spoil that. One place, surely not the only one, in more recent times had wait persons who explained each course, actually starting out with the phrase, "the chef, in his wisdom, has chosen...." Please. Insofar as The Menu is onto this game and wishes to laugh it away, I'm in.

But another aspect of this new movie is the "eat the rich" theme. This is only partial, because the guests, or invités, are a range of people. There is the restaurant critic, of course, the rich couple, the fading celebrity (John Leguizano), the nouveaux-riches men. Are they meant to be Silicon Valley, or pro athletes, or a mix? I didn't know: and this brings up the point that some of the arrows, for me, missed their mark. Perhaps epicures who have paid over a thousand dollars to be invited to a special island without cellphone service or means to escape till or when the proprietor wants them to leave, would identify.

The central couple is the most ambiguous. (Identity is a theme, and it touches also on Chef Slowik - Ralph Fiennes - who claims links to both a town in the Midwest and Bratislava.) They are Tyler and Margo (Nicholas Hoult and Anya Taylor-Joy, two Brits pretending to be Yanks). It takes the whole movie to unpack who they are and at the end one still doesn't really know, but it's clear that he is a passionate foodie and she could care less, evidenced by her puffing on a ciggie before the meal, horrifying him because it will ruin her palate. What are the writers getting at here? Maybe that fine restaurants are places to launder identities.

Something Mylod's film is also much into is the idea of how sometimes chefs are tyrants, and not just in the kitchen but over the diners at their restaurants. In the new documentary about the Chicago chef Charlie Trotter he is seen declaring that restaurants would be better without customers and that at bottom he doesn't like people anyway. So the height of The Menu's food satire is to show a restaurant where the client is not king but slave, begging to be let in, forced to admire strange and scary looking food served for its concept not its taste, a thoroughly unfun experience, a feast for a masochist.

It's only a step further to where the experience is torture. But for food satire this is a step too far. While The Menu does ridicule the preciosity of epicurean restaurant menus, with the "amuse-bouche," the annoying little lectures, and the sequence of self-important courses in which the chef adores himself and is fawned upon by his staff. But as the scariness grows, the real focus on fancy dining ceased to be important. And this becomes a series of surprises, so we can't talk about all that here. In the seesawing between satire and horror, something is lost, and while The Menu is an intense, glossy, well cast and well acted piece, the memory of its clashing flavors fades all too quickly.

But perhaps my palate and memory have both gone stale, and maybe I never was capable of appreciating what the astute Telegraph critic Robbie Collin sees here: a film with the same " deep and lasting satisfaction" provided by a "well-structured meal," which somehow "makes every bite more delicious" and "causes flavors to linger in the mind long after they’ve faded from the palate." But I really believe Messrs. Reiss and Tracy have introduced too many extraneous subplots and details into their entertaining and flavorful stew to call The Menu "well-structured." It's entertaining and tense, most of the way. That's all.

The Menu, 106 mins., debuted Sept. 10, 2022 at Toronto and showed at 18 or so other prestigious international festivals. It opened in US theaters Nov. 18, 2022. Metacritic rating 71%.