The Menu, 2022.
Directed by Mark Mylod.
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Judith Light, John Leguizamo, Rob Yang, Mark St. Cyr, Reed Birney, Aimee Carrero, Arturo Castro, Rebecca Koon, Peter Grosz, Christina Brucato, Paul Adelstein, and Adam Aalderks.
A young couple travels to a remote island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef has prepared a lavish menu, with some shocking surprises.
None of the targets in The Menu, a deliciously twisted and darkly funny takedown of the rich and high-class food world populated with narcissistic egos more concerned with cooking as a snobby, nonsensical art form than providing sustenance, aren’t particularly difficult to skewer.
Director Mark Mylod (primarily known for TV, including directing episodes of Succession and Game of Thrones) and screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy are aware of this, rising to the challenge of imbuing the concept with more than enough refreshing intrigue and cutting suspense to override its familiar premise, also with biting dialogue and good sense to shift character perspectives and routinely reveal information as often as the cooking staff carts out another baffling meal course (the term meal is used loosely).
The filmmakers use Nicholas Hoult’s obsessive foodie Tyler as a way into the story, bringing Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot as his +1 aboard a luxurious ship that shuffles an elite group off to a coastal island where an avant-garde restaurant resides (lavishly shot by Peter Deming). Tyler is not only excitedly losing his composure over the reality of meeting and making a good impression on his idol, stuffy celebrated Chef Slowik (played by Ralph Fiennes with utter contempt for the consumers), but also can’t help himself from pointing out a fictional movie star (John Leguizamo), a notoriously tough food critic (Janet McTeer), and others.
Making for a useful cipher to learn about the supporting cast, Tyler also quickly reveals himself to be an insufferable fanboy. He is a sycophant of the tallest order, quick to shout down any rebuttal or levelheaded logic from Margot, who instantly is put off by the superiority complex of the chef and staff, but also becomes increasingly agitated by Tyler’s incessant metaphorical knee-bending to their haughty treatment and courses that, in some cases, don’t offer any food (such as a breadless bread plate). Also present are three obnoxious finance bros, a bickering couple with at least one party harboring a secret, and the endlessly loyal managerial team headed up by Hong Chau’s Elsa (both a performance and character one will be thinking about long after the film concludes).
The first 45 minutes or so of The Menu play like a black comedy decidedly more fixated on the absurdity of these cuisines (and how much Tyler enjoys them) while rotating around the room, giving glimpses into the lives and conversations of the other guests, supplemented by amusing social commentary regarding their professions (John Leguizamo’s fading-in-popularity movie star has a scam plan to reignite interest that probably isn’t far off from what other actors performatively get up to).
At around this point, the sternly demented (but oddly hilarious, considering the personalities of his targets) Chef Slowik introduces a messy course (accompanied by Colin Stetson’s pulsating score taking on a more sinister tempo) that gets, well, very messy and transitions the genre from comedy to horror in a flash.
The artsy-fartsy courses are also meant to get inside the heads of the guests, in some cases directly mentioning their shady pasts. Each attendee has paid a hefty sum of money to be here, but it’s also evident that Chef Slowik has handpicked this group arrangement as part of a devilish, full-on egotistical masterpiece run. And while most of the guests recoil in fear and hardly push back, it’s Margot (a guest Chef Slowik didn’t plan on having for reasons I won’t spoil) that asserts herself as the average working-class woman daring enough to stand up (getting in a thrilling and impressively choreographed hand-to-hand fight with one of her costars) and criticize everything about the way Slowik conducts himself.
This means that while Tyler fades into the background (and at just the right time in terms of pacing, as his sycophantic schtick had gone cold), Margot emerges as someone to root for in a cast of amusing nuisances, something that Anya Taylor-Joy fiercely rolls with, verbally going one-on-one with the legendary Ralph Fiennes and holding her own to a degree where the intensely emotive performances alone are satiating enough.
While much of the social commentary The Menu is getting at sometimes feels lost at the expense of maintaining propulsive momentum, there’s a cooking sequence toward the end (I’m being as vague as possible here) that ties the film and themes together, much like Chef Slowik initially expresses that a final course has similar goals. The ending scene is an all-timer, offering the kind of inventively disturbing, playfully evil imagery that will have one salivating in admiration.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]