There is a certain boldness to Mark Mylod’s The Menu that few other movies could pull off. That gamble came in the form of the film’s two major trailers, which made it very clear that the movie would contain quasi-horror elements about a high-end chef trying to murder his patrons. There were even overt references to “And Then There Were None” and “The Most Dangerous Game,” heavily implying a degree of fantasy wish fulfillment in seeing wealthy assholes get a bit of karmic justice.
But why give away the ghost so completely? Well, it’s because Mylod and company knew that there was so much more to The Menu than its surface-level pleasures and knee-jerk class warfare virtue signaling. The film is filled to bursting with some of the most delectable dark comedy of the year, and while it’s far from perfect, there are some really solid performances and bits of satire. Like any fine dining experience, Mylod knows that presentation is often as important as the flavors of the food itself, and makes sure to give viewers a memorable feast for the senses.
As I mentioned with The Estate, there is great humor to be found when all the characters in the story are, to put it lightly, pieces of human excrement, and this film is another prime example. As we meet our cadre of likely doomed one-percenters preparing for an evening at the remote Hawthorne restaurant (I mean, if anyone is willing to pay $1,200 a head for a dinner, my default setting is that you probably deserve to die), we can take an instant giddy joy in anticipating their demise, again, because the trailers were willing to tease us with the knowledge of what’s to come.
Think of these introductions (as well as the previews from a meta perspective) as the aperitif of this cinematic meal. Nicholas Hoult plays Tyler, a self-important know-it-all and just the worst kind of foodie, which is to say, he’s basically every single foodie in existence. He’s joined by Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), his unenthusiastic date who serves as the voice of the audience, particularly when she is severely put off by the phrase, “mouth feel.” Filling out the ranks are a washed up movie star (John Leguizamo), his assistant (Aimee Carrero), a snobby food critic (Janet McTeer), her spineless editor (Paul Adelstein), a rich elderly couple who regularly frequents the restaurant (Reed Birney and Judith Light), and three douchey finance bros who work for the restaurant’s parent company (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, and Mark St. Cyr). As the ensemble boards the small yacht that ushers them to Hawthorne’s secluded island, you’ve already learned enough about each one to play a fucked up Rob Zombie-style parody of the Gilligan’s Island theme in your head imagining what poetic ends they might meet.
After disembarking, the guests are greeted by the restaurant’s maître d’ in the form of Elsa (Hong Chau), who notes the first mishap in the evening’s carefully orchestrated agenda, that Margot is not the plus-one that Tyler was originally scheduled to bring. It’s initially brushed off, but we know it’ll come into play later, because that’s just basic story structure, and thematically it still works within the setup of the scene, as Elsa shows everyone around the island, making particular note of the spartan living arrangements for the staff and the contrasting bloody facilities where their meat is prepared. It all feeds the motif that something’s just a bit off.
Finally, with the arrival of chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), the real fun can begin. Chewing every inch of the masterfully-appointed scenery like he was a customer himself, Fiennes starts each course (it’s a really fun framing device that only slightly diverges from traditional three-act structure) with a booming clap, an increasingly creepy anecdote, and a demonstration of the cult-like fealty of his employees. At times he’s a mixture of Gordon Ramsay and Sgt. Hartman. At others he’s Patrick Bateman combined with Professor Moriarty. But throughout, there’s a hint of pitiable melancholy to go along with the ruthless execution of his titular master plan, which makes the extremes of his personal vengeance all the more satisfying, not to mention funny.
From this point on, the movie becomes a tremendous exercise in escalating insanity. Each dish is introduced with Suicide Squad-esque screen text, becoming increasingly cheeky and sarcastic as we go. The slow realization by the guests of what’s about to happen, coupled with the appropriate payoffs, is so delicious it has to be fattening. The not-so-subtle commentaries about how art can be destroyed by philistines is a natural progression from Margot’s early sardonic observational humor. As a shit-talker, game recognizes game. The presence of Slowik’s alcoholic mother (Rebecca Koon), and the way she becomes more and more “over it” with every glass of wine is a macabre delight!
And as previously mentioned, the scenery sells the fun of the game to an incredible degree. The main Hawthorne set is in many ways its own character, with every prop meticulously placed for maximum utility as the violent chaos ensues. The tight, angular dimensions make for a perfect balance between creepy and classy, allowing for exquisite economy of space so that the ensemble cast can move around flawlessly, whether we’re talking about the highly choreographed kitchen workers or the madcap blocking of the patrons. It’s not often that I openly campaign for an Oscar category this early, especially the technical or artistic ones, but if this doesn’t get nominated for Production Design I will spit nails.
There are only two aspects that come up just a bit short for me. One is Anya Taylor-Joy. She’s one of the best actresses in the world, and I hope one day to make beautiful, big-eyed babies with her (yes, I’m a perv, sue me). Normally I enjoy just about anything she does, and she definitely has some good early moments. But once it becomes clear that Margot is the variable in the plot, with Slowik pulling her aside multiple times to ask which side she’s on (a side that even Margot points out is completely moot), Taylor-Joy kind of sits back into “last girl” horror movie characterization, and it just becomes a matter of how and why she’s going to come out on top. I think part of the motivation is that, given the amount of cynicism she shows early on, calling out every odd thing she sees, Mylod et al wanted her to eventually become the one character we root for, and thus her sense of humor was all but surgically removed around the halfway point.
To an extent, I get it, because as a cynical dick myself, being the one person in the room capable of critical thought is a great way to turn everyone against you. You have no idea how many times someone has thought themselves clever by sarcastically telling me, “I bet you’re real fun at parties.” Hell, Janet McTeer’s character is already here to show just how much Slowik (and by extension Seth Reiss and Will Tracy as screenwriters) tolerate nitpickers like me. So I get the feeling Margot’s early beats are about making her the smartest person in the room – or at minimum the only one to see through the bullshit – but after that point she’s just a standard-issue suspense heroine, and as such, Taylor-Joy leaves that half of the performance as rote.
The second issue is with the plot. Overall, the script is very well written, with brilliant dialogue and absolutely uproarious jokes. But the ins and outs of the story leave a bit to be desired. There are a few Chekhov’s Guns that are clearly laid out but never fired, one of which would have made for an absolutely perfect capper to the film. The one major action scene comes completely out of left field, especially when you consider that the character motivations that set it up don’t make any sense. For as much as Slowik talks about how the evening has been planned down to the last detail, it sort of beggars belief that he wouldn’t be able to account for the possibility of Margot as a substitute diner. This becomes particularly egregious given later revelations and twists about Tyler. It’s just not plausible that he would never consider the presence of an interloper when laying out his scheme.
Further, while none of the Hawthorne diners are saints, there’s a bit of broad stroking when it comes to the degree of their various crimes, and how little mercy Slowik extends in light of it. Janet McTeer, as a food critic, can advance or end the careers of chefs like Slowik with a flourish of her keyboard, and the fact that Paul Adelstein as her editor is such a lickspittle that he never stands up to her forked tongue is enough information to sufficiently damn them to whatever’s coming. But contrast that with Judith Light, who is just the wife of a rich asshole. What’s her sin? Showing up? Similarly, Leguizamo plays a movie star who name-drops Slowik as if they’re friends, which just makes him a Hollywood phony, and he apparently made one really bad family movie for a quick paycheck, sacrificing his artistic integrity. One, Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow already covered this in Funny People, and two, if making a bad movie is a capital crime, then I’ve got two words for you, Ralph, Red fucking Dragon! Hell, in one of the few jokes that falls flat, he handwaves his condemnation of Leguizamo’s assistant because she went to an Ivy League school without accruing student debt. The implication is that she grew up wealthy and privileged enough to afford it, but she could just as easily have gotten a scholarship, and even if her parents paid her way, that doesn’t mean she didn’t have the academic merit to earn her place at the school. Is that really worth the same punishment as the others?
The thing is though, I can get past this if it wasn’t for the ending. I won’t spoil anything, because it’s still worth the fun surprises lurking within. But given how committed Slowik is to seeing out his plan, the ease with which he’s willing to let go of his ego and treat Margot as a blind spot kind of flies in the face of everything else established in the film. Slowik has no sympathy for anyone else in the movie, yet he’s somehow able to make an exception for her, and for the dumbest of reasons. It’s kind of maddening, especially because there’s an obvious solution for Slowik to placate Margot’s attempt to turn the tables while still coming out on top himself. He simply chooses not to, and for no discernible reason in the grand scheme of things.
Thankfully, the spectacle and gallows humor of The Menu more than make up for these ancillary flaws. It takes a lot of guts to basically tell the audience in advance what you’re going to do, and even more confidence in your product to do so knowing you have so many more ambitious, experimental treats for those still willing to pony up the cash. Ralph Fiennes gets to spend an hour and a half literally and figuratively dishing out some really well-made harshness, tapping in to our collective schadenfreude for our so-called societal “elites.” As juicy and satisfying as a perfectly-seasoned steak, this is an experience that will leave you begging for seconds.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever eaten at a celebrity chef’s restaurant? Did I get enough food puns into this review? Let me know!