Dining With Danger

The Menu
Directed by Mark Mylod ◆ Written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy ◆ Produced by Hyperobject Industries ◆ Distributed by Searchlight Pictures

Big Night
Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci ◆ Written by Joseph Tropiano and Stanley Tucci ◆ Produced by Rysher Entertainment ◆ Distributed by The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Director Mark Mylod’s The Menu largely fails because it leaves out a key ingredient. In a film that is preoccupied with the alimentary canals of its wealthy upscale characters, Mylod has ignored the canal’s inevitable result: crap. He clearly means to satirize the pretensions of his upper-class characters, who have assembled at a restaurant located on an island named Hawthorne, owned by Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), an imperially haughty chef who, once his 12 diners are seated, announces that he will be serving them not a meal so much as a gastronomic event, for which they’ve each paid a modest $1,250. Twelve is, of course, a hint.

Once the diners are seated, he tells them that they’re not going to eat food but rather inhale and savor his dishes, on which he bestows names not likely to be found in any cookbooks. He has the first course, named Ocean, served on the boat that carries the diners to his island.

The most savory course, he calls Memory. It consists of chicken thighs impaled with scissors. Why? Because it recalls an incident from Slowik’s boyhood. His father had come home drunk one night and tried to strangle his mother with a phone wire. For this outrage, Slowik stabbed his dad in the thigh with a pair of scissors.

Then there’s the bread course, which Slowik introduces with a smarmy reminder that bread has always been the food of the common people. For instance, it’s the key element in the Christian mass. Remember, his patrons number 12. Since—unlike the Gospels’ original bread-eaters—his guests are not common at all, he serves them wood platters bare of bread and leaving only bread’s likely condiments, a variety of oils poured into tiny hollows carved into the wood.

I mentioned “crap” earlier. Prior to Mylod’s film, other artists have used feces to mock the pretentious. Accordingly, Jonathan Swift, Luis Buñuel, and Louis Ferdinand-Céline pay due honor to their characters’ alimentary canals and their product in Gulliver’s Travels, The Phantom of Liberty, and Journey to the End of the Night. After Gulliver has eaten his first meal in Lilliput and feels the need to defecate, he tells us at great length how he did so, decently out of sight of his little hosts. In The Phantom of Liberty, Buñuel included a scene in which dinner guests sit at an empty table conversing amiably, now and then repairing to toilet stalls to eat their meals in strictest privacy. Buñuel’s satires are notably heavy-handed in this way. In Journey to the End of the Night, Céline has it that during the First World War, feces were the commonest of concomitants in both the trenches and “polite company” everywhere.

Think of Gulliver in Lilliput explaining at great length how he hid his first bowel movement among the Lilliputians, all the while boasting of how tidily decent he was about it, hiding himself as well as he could. The practical Lilliputians came afterward to wheelbarrow the waste away. Then in Gulliver’s fourth voyage, he takes us to the land of the Houyhnhnms, whose reasonable and placid talking horses may have been the forerunners of television’s talking horse, Mr. Ed. There’s one flaw in Houyhnhnm land, though. They share their soil with filthy, unruly neighbors, called Yahoos, who use their feces as their weapon of choice, hurling it at opponents in their frequent disputes.

Whereas Swift, Buñuel, and Céline used crap to remind us of both the crudity of life and human hypocrisy, Mylod leaves the intestinal product out of his film altogether. Although Mylod’s characters exercise their alimentary canals aplenty in Slowik’s restaurant, he neglects to even mention the obvious result of their gourmandizing and thereby loses a traditional misanthropic opportunity to satirize their pretentiousness. After all, what better reminds us of the limitations and crudity of our lives than our necessity to defecate once in a while? Along with death, crap is the great equalizer. And traditionally, satirists make a point of not being fastidious.

So why has Mylod delicately left feces out of his story? I don’t know, but it seems at least to betray a lack of seriousness. Outwardly, his film shows only the cultured manners of his characters and almost never their filthy scrambling for the main chance.

Ralph Fiennes is fine as the restauranteur. Beneath his professional politesse while addressing his guests, he seems genuinely charming. He’s all savoir faire with superbly calculated etiquette, never missing an opportunity to smile with seeming benevolence. As the evening proceeds, however, we learn that he’s anything but solicitous for his guests’ well-being. For reasons never fully illustrated, he means to dispose of them permanently, as if they were the leavings of an unwashed pot or plate.

Mylod’s film is advertised as a horror comedy, and it certainly lives up to its claim (at least on the horror side). For committing the effrontery of complaining about the restaurant’s wait-service, one guest has a finger severed. Late in the game, Slowik announces his plan to kill everyone on the island. He does, however, give his guests a chance to escape. All these middle-aged diners need do to avoid being slaughtered is simple. They’re given the chance to outrun Slowik’s young and physically robust staff through the dense foliage of the surrounding night-shrouded forest.

Funny? Everyone to his taste, but I must confess I only chuckled once, during a scene involving Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), playing the one guest who wasn’t invited and is in Slowik’s restaurant only because, as a professionally bought woman, she allowed herself to be brought there by Tyler, a ridiculous, high-cuisine addict played by Nicholas Hought. Near the end of the narrative, Margot improbably manages to back Chef Slowik into a corner. She forcefully tells him his food is a failure and demands that he prepare her an all-American cheeseburger to make up for her disappointment. Cowed by her demand, Slowik prepares for her his Platonic conception of a cheeseburger. The close-up sight of this popular delicacy and Margot’s obvious relish of it are, as they say, priceless.

So, is this film worth watching? It’s amusing in places, and the acting is never less than accomplished and often a good deal better. And since it’s streaming on the HBO platform, my answer is yes. True, it suffers from an absence of feces, but if you can tolerate this lacuna, you’re likely to enjoy it.

Big Night is a small independent film made big by its performances. It’s co-directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, who clearly disciplined themselves to keep within the borders of the believable. The film never strains its simple plot, which tells the tale of two brothers who have emigrated from Calabria to open an Italian restaurant on the Jersey Shore. For clarity’s sake, they’ve been named Primo (Tony Shaloub, the older brother) and Secondo (Tucci playing the younger.).

Despite their family connection, the brothers are extraordinarily different from one another. Primo is an extremely talented chef with a madly perfectionist streak that makes him impossibly demanding. He refuses to make American-style Italian food. When a customer complains that there’s no spaghetti side dish with her entree, Primo explodes and repairs to the kitchen, the better to loudly rage that such a vulgarian should have tarnished his aesthetic precinct. For her lack of taste and, in his eyes, her beastly stupidity, he lets loose a tirade of vulgarity punctuated by America’s odd custom of abusing others with the verb for sexual congress.

Part of the film’s trajectory is to illuminate the hardship of assimilation. Secondo wants to fit in with American ways and is more than ready to suppress his Italian culture in this cause. Primo is just the opposite. He expects—no, demands—that Americans come round to the Italian point of view and grows furious when they don’t.

Coming from a large Italian-Irish family—many, but not all, of whom have assimilated—I understood this perfectly.

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