The Menu is a movie that both celebrates elaborate dining and foodie culture while also calling it incredibly vapid. The notion that the well to do 1% cream of the crop are somehow entitled to lavish culinary experiences that only they can fully appreciate is thoroughly skewered. And the movie is also very funny with lots of bizarre moments as it bounces from serious to silly to horror to carnage often inside of the same scene. The Menu is a thespian showcase as a conceited façade collapses into madness and chaos, one elaborately prepared course at a time.
Tyler (Nicolas Hoult) is taking his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) to a culinary experience, travelling by boat to a secluded island where they get a meal prepared by the genius Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The guests are affluent people like a movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero), a couple of moneymaking finance bros, a food critic, Lillian (Janet McTeer), and a rich couple, Richard (Reed Briney) and Anne (Judith Light). The restaurant captain, Elsa (Hong Chau), says the elaborate dishes in the meal have a distinct theme. But things go wrong as Julian’s speeches and dishes reveal something darkly sinister underneath. People start dropping dead and what may be on the menu are the diners themselves.
The various diners are certainly being served up by Julian’s elaborate scheme. The film has lush shots of the food as it is plated and presented, giving the movie a feel of an intimate dining experience that goes horribly wrong. Julian even gives a speech about how one must not eat the food but taste and enjoy it, a small but important distinction. Although the savvy Margot sees the theatricality as complete bunk. Julian delivers hidden messages in his appetizers like giving people tasting sauce instead of bread, making it difficult to differentiate what is a bit and what is genuine. Even when a sou-chef does something shocking the diners can’t tell if it’s part of the event or reality. There’s some digit dismemberment afterwards which convinces them what is real. Even as awful stuff happens, there’s a tension of waiting to see if this really a scheme, something the movie sustains until the very end. Events correspond with each course with a couple of amusingly unexpected additional dishes and courses. The film ends with a dessert presentation that is absolutely twisted and makes tonal sense yet is also completely absurdist.
The fine balance between earnest and absurd is personified in the character of Julian and Fiennes is perfect in the role. There’s lots of funny side glances that he gives the diners if they have the audacity to interrupt one of his spiels. He is a tortured artist who isn’t getting enough appreciation for his work. The staff members are basically cultists, with Elsa saying that they all live on the island, working 20 hours a day. Chau’s Elsa bitingly disarms people’s cute little questions about how the job works. Even with all the finery, Julian and his crew view themselves as working class folks which makes the revenge on the rich diners a cathartic release.
Hoult as Tyler seemingly starts off as the movie’s main character, but he quickly becomes an irrelevant jerk. He dismisses anything Erin says and fanboys out about every single dish that is served, taking secret photos of the food when he was warned not to. When the chef asks Tyler to make a dish himself, Tyler enthusiastically puts his food love into action and fails miserably. Taylor-Joy as Margot shows a girl who is not as much of a pushover as she seems to be. She has some smart moments, especially at the end when she attempts to talk her way out of the situation. McTeer as the food critic has elaborately worded reasons about why the food is thematic story as her companion nods along like what she’s saying makes sense, but she’s just babbling pretentious nonsense. When the chef overhears the critic say something mildly disparaging about the presentation of sauce, he keeps giving her the same sauce over and over in increasingly larger bowls to taunt her.
The movie star and his assistant are spending the appetizers complaining to each other about work and Leguizamo has awesome moments as a star who is trying to translate his tarnished fame into a second act as a food show host. He has a bit where he pitches his travelling food show idea that is hilariously shallow. The finance bros are immediately irritating and probably the most satisfying to see get their comeuppance. Briney and Light as the elderly couple are supposed to be the sympathetic ones but they come off as also kind of dim. When Briney’s Richard tries to leave he is put down in a shockingly messy manner. These important, sophisticated people crumble into cowardice and pleading as the night goes on. Chef Julian even says disdainfully they could have tried harder to escape.
The Menu offers a tantalizing glimpse into “high society” and then tears it down as irrelevant and shallow when the knives start to come out. It is full of great twists and a couple of darkly comedic laughs, making for a memorable last meal.
Director: Mark Mylod
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Reed Birney, Judith Light and John Leguizamo