No one succumbs to a shrimp allergy or suffers violent gastrointestinal distress in “Tasting Menu,” but everyone assembled for this relentlessly mediocre ensemble dramedy seems to be having a fairly wretched time all the same, the audience not least of all. Bringing together some of the least compelling dinner guests in recent memory at a world-class restaurant that’s about to permanently close its doors, this blandly seriocomic misfire from Spanish co-writer/director Roger Gual is too lazy to rise to the level of farce, too banal and insincere to work as drama. Truly neither fish nor fowl, it’s unlikely to tempt any but the most undiscerningly middlebrow of arthouse audiences in limited theatrical release.
Gual and Javier Calvo’s script draws an unsubtle parallel between Chakula, the Catalonian coastal restaurant where the film is almost entirely set, and El Bulli, the real-life molecular gastronomy powerhouse that closed its doors in 2011. Globally renowned chef Mar Vidal (Vicenta N’Dongo) has decided on a similar fate for Chakula as the film opens, and “Tasting Menu” unfolds on the restaurant’s final night of operation, as Mar endeavors to serve an amazing dinner to those fortunate enough to have landed on the highly exclusive guest list.
These include a recently separated married couple, Rachel (Claudia Bassols) and Marc (Jan Cornet), who decide to keep the dinner date they made ages ago; Rachel’s handsome jerk of a boss, Daniel (Timothy Gibbs), who’s jetted in from New York for the occasion; a sweet, tart-tongued countess (Fionnula Flanagan) who insists on dining opposite the urn holding her late husband’s remains; and a pair of rival Japanese businessmen (Togo Igawa, Akihiko Serikawa) vying for ownership of Mar’s next culinary venture. Most intriguing of all — which is to say, not very — is Walter Reilly, a mopey man of mystery played by Stephen Rea as if he were channeling Anton Ego by way of Eeyore.
“If I get bored, I’ll let you know,” Reilly says at one point to a nosy maitre’d (Andrew Tarbet). The viewer, alas, is given no such recourse as this indigestible Europudding sends its characters through a strained and wearyingly contrived gauntlet of miscommunication, emotional confusion and flat-out boorish behavior, all en route to a simply bewildering faux-feel-good climax. The actors do what they can, but even classy veterans like Flanagan and Rea can’t rise above the fray, while Igawa and Serikawa seem especially straitjacketed by their stern-Asian stereotypes, their deadpan expressions coming across as silent cries for help.
Unflattering culinary metaphors come all too easily to mind when dissecting Gual’s third feature (after “Smoking Room” and “Remake”), from its uniformly stale ingredients and flavorless execution to its surprisingly lackluster presentation. On the most basic level of culinary eye-candy, the movie is almost a complete flameout: D.p. Emilio Guirao and editor Alberto de Toro gloss right over the painstakingly prepared dishes, rarely allowing the viewer much more than a mildly tempting closeup, or even pausing long enough for someone to describe the cuisine as it rushes past our field of vision. There’s absolutely nothing here to entice the avid food-porn consumer, and certainly not while “Big Night,” “Babette’s Feast,” “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “The Trip” and the Food Network are all still in circulation.
“Tasting Menu” looks about as good as it can for a movie set in Barcelona but shot in Ireland, and Guirao’s lensing imparts a slickly professional glow to Stephane Carpinelli’s production design. The musical choices, however, grate from beginning to end, providing alternately awkward and pushy accompaniment in ways that leave no doubt as to what we’re supposed to think or feel, even if the final product never once inspires thought or feeling.