I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been binge watching some cooking competition on Food Network and have yelled at my TV about how pretentious it all sounds. I too have asked every judge on “Chopped” to (for the love of god) stop saying “mouthfeel.” Even someone who loves these kinds of shows (and I very much do) there is a pretentiousness to it all, both in the chef’s description and the judges comments. Any time they begin with “Today I’ve made for you, chefs, a…” and the fill in the blank of eye roles as they hurl superlatives that glamorize a bite sized entree of a meatball in a gummy bear puree. This is the kind of obvious narcissism and elitist mindset “The Menu” is after, brutally satirizing the world of fine dining and everyone who contributes to the self indulgent machine.
What makes the film so smart (in addition to its clever premise and biting wit) is that its subject (in this case, fine dining) can be substituted for any industry and it would still be just as effective. Its intellectual layers delivers a multifaceted critique that lets the audience replace anything that has this kind of class structure and arrogance baked into their industry. The guest list in “The Menu” is comprised of foodies, food critics, and the rich and famous. All of them could be easily substituted with say, oh I don’t know, film critics, YouTube film snobs and influencers, and the film would still work as intended. Whoever you see in these characters and their torturous, diabolical host will surely resonate with you, and deliver a delicious dish of revenge that is best served cold. Make no mistake, either. “The Menu” is a thrilling black comedy through and through, deliciously demented and darkly crafted, and takes a twisted palate to be fully enjoyed.
No, I will no apologize for the food puns, and spoiler alert: I intended to serve up plenty more appetizing zingers before the check comes.
Directed by Mark Mylod (“Succession“) and written by Seth Reis and Will Tracy, “The Menu” follows a select group of guests who are invited to spend an evening with world renowned chef Julian Slowick (Ralph Fiennes) for a meticulously curated and painstakingly crafted multi-course meal. The guest list includes a food blogger obsessed with Slowick (Nicholas Hault), a group tech bros (who are everything you hate about tech bros), a washed up actor (John Legiuzamo), a food critic with prides herself in knowing her reviews close down restaurants (Janet Mcteer), and a last minute change to the diners in Margo (Anya Taylor Joy), who’s presence disrupts the menu and events Slowick has planned for his guests. It becomes pretty clear that there is something far more sinister and punishing in store for his patrons, but even with “The Menu” laying most of the cards out on the table early, it still manages to pack plenty of twists and subversions all the way to very end.
“The Menu” is expertly paced, with stunning production design and cinematography from Ethan Tobman and Peter Deming to create the fictional restaurant Hawthorne, the exclusive diner on a remote island where all of the guests are essentially stranded and at Slowick’s mercy. The film’s use of horror/thriller pacing paired with biting satire and whip smart dialogue creates an unsettling atmosphere that immediately grabs you and never lets go. Even as more and more gets revealed with each course, “The Menu” constantly leaves you guessing as it sprinkles breadcrumbs with each passing minute. It thrills and engages you, leaving you eager to find the theme of the evening and uncover the concept of this truly devious and shocking plan. As Hault’s Tyler says, “You won’t know until the end.”
It is interesting that two of the funniest films released this year are “eat the rich” satires, with “Triangle of Sadness” having a similar message that also includes a mockery of fine dining. Though I would argue that “The Menu” is much less assaulting in its craft, and despite being rather obvious about its intentions is far more inviting than the aggression of “Sadness” and made with a fondness of its subject rather than disdain. For every moment spent demonstrating the sheer ridiculousness of eating sea foam or a tiny scallop placed on top of an actual sea rock and raving about the “mouthfeel,” there’s a genuine yearning for the simpler things of good food and good taste that “The Menu” has baked into its screenplay. “Triangle of Sadness” on the other hand has 0 empathy or sympathy for any of its characters or subject, and while both ensemble casts deserve most of what befalls them, there is a clear difference in how these similar messages are delivered that edges out “The Menu” as being the superior and far more enjoyable film.
The film also has the added benefit of an outstanding ensemble cast, with everyone clearly understanding the assignment and dialing in to both the horror and humor of it all. They’re all having an absolutely blast, and you can feel their unrestrained approach and Mylod’s freedom to do so. The whole cast is having as much fun playing their characters in “The Menu” as we are watching them, and the choice to let most of the table talk be improvised helps ground the characters despite everything (including themselves) being intentionally over the top throughout.
Though purposefully archetypes (the tech bros might as well be nameless, as they truly embody every stereotype you can imagine between the three of them) we learn quite a bit about each of them through their dinner table conversations. “The Menu” is a clear example of what actors can do when a script works for them instead of against them, with each performance adding something unique to their well written though purposefully generic characters. Janet McTeer is the manifestation every worst yelp review, and Hault is every blogger/influencer fanboy who knows everything about everything with a sense of arrogance and “well actually” attitude towards anyone who “doesn’t get it” but couldn’t cook to save his life. John Leguizamo is every washed up celebrity clinging to the last vestige of relevance despite being long forgotten and scorned for terrible choices both on and off screen.
It is a collection of unlikeable characters that still manage to be somewhat likable and enjoyable, and the moral ambiguity of whether or not their crimes deserve their punishments continually come into question. Hong Chau is a supportive MVP as Slowick’s right hand, who’s unflinching dedication to the menu, deadpan delivery and disdain for her guests sports some of the darkest yet funniest moments of the film. And then there’s the films leads, with Fiennes and Joy turning in some truly award worthy work here. Fiennes is every bit as indulgent, narcissistic and obsessed as the very people he eloquently mocks, placing himself on a pedestal as an auteur creating his magnum opus with this fiendish evening. Fiennes commands every scene, not just with his general like command over his chefs every time he claps to introduce a new course, but with every delivery of hyperbolic and metaphorical descriptions of each and every meal. Every course has some ridiculous over the top story, that is interpreted differently by each person.
Joy acts as the audience surrogate, being “The Menu’s” fish out of water character who isn’t suppose to be here and sees through all of the bullshit from the jump. Joy is a can’t miss actress for me, and “The Menu” is another home run to her already stellar resume. Her pairing with both Hault (who is also just fantastic) and Fiennes is packed with chemistry, and I could watch her call shenanigans on the two of them for another hour and a half. It’s another brilliant performance, and the tension between her and Fiennes as she starts to stand her ground and trade morality barbs back and forth is a major force that drives the film home to its satisfying conclusion. On that note, “The Menu” may not stick the landing as hard as it could for some, ultimately leaving some threads not completely woven back into the unraveling and choosing to drive its overall message home instead of going a little deeper into some of the film’s more outrageous elements.
There are still some unanswered questions, but none that are so burning it takes away from the film’s overall enjoyment. “The Menu” itself wrestles with the idea of being satisfied, with even Fiennes character telling his guests, “Do not eat. Taste.” Luckily, for all its overindulgence and feigned decadence, the film is just over 90 minutes long, proving that you don’t need to make a 3 hour movie to tell a riveting, impactful story. Seriously, take notes. “The Menu” is taut but effective, delivering huge amounts of narrative through its characters and setting, and using every course as a building block while never wasting its time. This allows the film to never let up once it gets going, and keeps things humming along with delectable anticipation. This is proof that not every movie needs to be 3 hours long, and it can pack a ton of flavor in a small bite.
I think this might be one of my favorite films of the year. Its fun, twisted, shocking, funny, and just delightfully demented. You certainly have to be bought in to it all rather quickly, but if you can pay your way to a seat at the table, you will be rewarded with one of the funniest black comedy thrillers to come out in years. This is a must see, brilliantly performed and extremely well written. This one lives up to the hype, folks.
This film will leave you satisfied but also starving, knowing this was the perfect serving size but enjoying it so much you kind of want to go back for seconds. Though the layering of commentary on industry pretentiousness targeted at fine dining but applicable to anyone in any kind of similar space is plenty of courses to indulge the most discerning palate, you’ll leave “The Menu” with big smile on your face and a craving for a good old fashioned cheeseburger.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
“The Menu” is in theaters November 18th. You can watch the trailer below.