Cramming as many bland characters and narratives into one small restaurant as it can, Tasting Menu—an international co-production set in Barcelona but shot entirely in Ireland—doesn’t even remotely qualify as flavorful. Among other demerits, this is the rare foodie movie that doesn’t seem to care much about food. Obligatory shots of preparation and presentation are included along with some quick descriptions of oddities (“It’s a margarita inside an aloe vera leaf”); most of the meal’s courses are glossed over or skipped past, however, and few viewers will find themselves feeling ravenous, or even peckish. The restaurant is merely an excuse to assemble a disparate group of people for some ostensibly life-changing experiences, which would be fine were even one of its multiple storylines the slightest bit creative or interesting. The most mysterious of the lot gets revealed as the most banal, which almost seems like a deliberate “fuck you.”
In a typical bit of clumsy overkill, the movie informs at the outset that Mar Vidal (Vicenta N’Dongo) has been named the best chef in the world three times. (By whom? Not specified.) Nonetheless, she’s decided to close her hugely successful restaurant, Chakula, for no apparent reason except that the movie wants to stage Chakula’s final night, but also wants the pressure of rival Japanese investors (Togo Igawa and Akihiko Serikawa) who are attending in order to decide whether to make Mar an offer. Other guests for this exclusive evening include a Countess (Fionnula Flanagan) who brings along the urn containing her recently deceased husband’s ashes; a divorced couple (Claudia Bassols and Jan Cornet) who made the reservation long ago, when they were still together, and both insist on keeping it; and a gentleman nobody seems to know (Stephen Rea), who’s initially suspected to be a food critic (reviewing a legendary restaurant that will have closed? Ooookay…) but soon appears to have even more nefarious motives for being present.
Every element of this ensemble piece is conceived in the most lazily “crowd-pleasing” way possible, which makes the cumulative effect feel grotesquely cynical. It’s a given, for example, that the divorced couple will rediscover their love for each other over dinner. But Tasting Menu pours sugar on Frosted Flakes by having the woman’s current boyfriend (Timothy Gibbs) show up unannounced—at this event where everyone had to book over a year in advance, mind you; he magically knows one of the other dozen attendees, who can’t make it—and proceed to behave like a cartoon asshole, insulting the waitstaff and sending an engagement ring over to the table where the woman’s ex is still sitting. Old pros like Flanagan, Rea, and Igawa do their best with this nonsense, but are all at the mercy of director Roger Gual, whose default idea for photographing people at a table is to obsessively circle them (à la the big meal argument from Hannah And Her Sisters), whether that makes any emotional sense or not. By the time a boat loaded with a special dessert sinks en route to the seaside restaurant, causing the patrons to abandon their plates in order to search for the survivors (no, seriously), Chakula can’t close its doors soon enough.