What You Wish For is a story of haves and have-nots, and the morality-challenging divide that exists between them.
More than a mere have-not, gambling addict Ryan Mosely (Nick Stahl) is also massively in debt, and has had to flee his Dallas home, in fear for his very life. The fact that he is being pursued by an aggressive loan shark named Rabbit is an early signifier of just how readily the rôles of predator and prey can be interchanged and reversed. Ryan may land, at the film’s beginning, in an unnamed Latin American country with just $10 in his pocket (currency that the locals will reject), with zero prospects and with a relentless lender threatening to harm his loved ones, but his fortune is about to change, driving him, willingly or otherwise, up in the world and in the food chain.
Ryan does have one set of special skills – not subterfuge, or kickass fighting, or violent recovery, but a talent for cooking which he acquired back in culinary school. Now, with nowhere else to turn, he is hoping to reconnect with his old friend Jack (Brian Groh), whom he has not seen since they studied together to be chefs 12 years ago. Ryan is surprised to be picked up at the airport by a chauffeur, and even more surprised to be driven to a large, remote house with infinity pool and Edenic views of the surrounding rainforest – in short, Paradise, with all the luxurious appointments and extra trimmings.
This is not Jack’s home, but rather a temporary residence, where he is due to cater a special dinner for a small group of superrich clients. As Jack explains, the Agency for which he works has him moving around the world for high-end gigs like this at similarly exquisite, similarly private settings, and pays him well for the local food that he personally sources and prepares.
While Jack seems jaded, even haunted by his lucrative, jetset lifestyle serving a global élite, Ryan sees only what he himself would like to have. After all, both men come from similar backgrounds, are the same age, and Ryan is smarter and even arguably the better cook than his friend – yet there he is, a desperate loser on the run, while Jack has everything he could ever want, not to mention, as Ryan discovers after a sneak peek at Jack’s computer, well over a million in the bank.
“I read somewhere,” Jack will tell Ryan in what is as much a warning as a philosophical reflection, “that the reward always matches the atrocity.” Ryan is about to discover what that really means, after he crosses an ethical line and finds himself having to impersonate Jack as solo chef for a very special evening and a very unusual meal – and unlike a financial debt, certain moral debts can never be repaid.
The proverbial phrase ‘what you wish for’ comes with an implicit ‘be careful…’, and sure enough, this taut, tense film, written and directed by Nicholas Tomnay (The Perfect Host, 2010), is a cautionary tale about the irresistible imperative – and moral emptiness – of class envy, when those at the top have neither empathy nor any other admirable qualities, and those who feed them to advance themselves become compromised by, and complicit in, a closed system of unspeakable consumerism.
Based around a dinner, this is a little like Guto Parente’s The Cannibal Club (O Clube dos Canibais, 2018) or Mark Mylod’s The Menu (2022), focussing as much on the hired help – besides Ryan, the immaculate hostess Imogene (Tamsin Topolski), the troubleshooter Maurice (Juan Carlos Messier) and two local servers (Maria Fernanda Gomez, Bria Acuna) – as on the privileged diners (David Tominaga, Norma Nivia, Megumi Hasebe, Evan Sudarsky, Raphael Philippon).
This “extraordinary experience” is certainly exclusive, but room is still found at the table to accommodate uninvited guests like the two suspicious policemen (Randy Vasquez, Ariel Sierra) sniffing around with uncomfortable questions, or the Australian tourist (Penelope Mitchell) looking to hook back up with Jack.
Also on the table is a generous serving of social allegory, as we see not only fastidiously prepared culinary rarities, but also the source, labour and means of production required to put them on the plate for the delectation of an aloof few. This selection of courses is cut and cooked at great human cost, exposing a globalised economy where only the 1% get to dine out on the strivings and sufferings of everyone else.
What You Wish For plays out as a sort of macabre farcical thriller, in which Ryan’s envious ambition, whether expressed through reckless gambling or through cosying up to the superrich, proves a trap in which, one way or another, everything that he truly values will be lost. After all, when it comes to the games of the affluent, the rest of us will always just pawns, slaves or morsels.