The act of eating has always been rich with metaphor and meaning, from the offering of bread and wine at a certain supper 2,000 years ago to the rending of human flesh by reanimated corpses in more recent cinematic outings. In the movies alone, the taking of a meal is often loaded with political, social, family, or sexual undercurrents. Which brings us to The Menu, a scathing and occasionally uproarious black comedy that manages to be a mostly entertaining repast, even if the feast gets a little heavy by the end.
As the film opens, a couple named Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) are headed to a secluded island in the Pacific Northwest for an exclusive dinner at the ultra-chic restaurant Hawthorn. Margot is not Tyler’s original guest, a minor inconvenience that’s frowned upon for a moment by the maitre’d, Elsa (Hong Chau), before the pair board the boat for the island. Also onboard are a trio of rich tech dudes, a wealthy older couple, a food critic and her editor, and a once-famous actor and his personal assistant.
Apparently securing a reservation at Hawthorn is a tremendously difficult and prestigious thing to do, and Tyler, who fancies himself a foodie, cannot believe his good luck. Margot is less impressed by the ostentatiousness of the whole thing, especially when world-famous head chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) welcomes them to the restaurant with a level of pretension that immediately places The Menu in the genre of satire, as it ridicules both the self-importance of certain elite restaurants as well as the people who work and eat in them.
What’s being served up here as the film goes on, along with the strikingly precious presentation of the cuisine itself (overseen by real-life master chef Dominique Crenn), is a very dark comedy that pokes fun at elitism in all its forms while taking the idea of the exclusive dinner to a most extreme conclusion. Margot is the only one not impressed or affected by the surroundings or the menu, which draws the attention of Slowik even as his own motivations begin to surface in alarming ways.
Directed by Mark Mylod, who has largely found success as a director and executive producer on TV shows like Game of Thrones and Succession, The Menu makes it clear early on that we’re in for a ride that encompasses both horror and parody in equal measures. Mylod and screenwriters Will Tracy and Seth Reiss handle the tonal balance rather well overall, even if The Menu seems to struggle to reach its climax once all the courses have been served, so to speak.
They’re helped immeasurably by the cast, starting with Fiennes, whose enigmatic and sinister Slowik gradually reveals different layers to his personality while providing him with an unfolding back story that hints at the enormous pressures brought to bear in the real-life restaurant business—pressures that take their toll on his beleaguered staff as well. Fiennes anchors the film with his trademark presence and gravitas while delivering a performance that walks a fine line between malevolent and vulnerable.
Taylor-Joy lights up the screen as always with her direct, no-nonsense character, who also remains something of a mystery in her own right. Hoult, who’s turning into one of our more interesting young leading men as his baby face fills out, also manages to make Tyler both despicable and pitiable, his neediness and desperation for acceptance ultimately causing him to have a very different night than the one he thought he’d enjoy.
The rest of the characters aren’t nearly sketched in with as much detail and so remain largely either archetypes or placeholders, but John Leguizamo fares the best as the Movie Star (that’s how he’s billed), a one-time box office powerhouse who’s hoping to make a transition into hosting a travel food show as he sees his career slip away. The relationship between him and his assistant (Aimee Carrero) is complex and toxic, subtly making a dig at those kinds of co-dependent arrangements found all over Hollywood.
The Menu is basically set all in one location, with most of the action taking place in Hawthorn’s dining room or its adjacent open kitchen area, but Mylod and cinematographer Peter Deming (Mulholland Drive) keep it all moving fleetly while steadily making the film more claustrophobic. The close-ups of the food and cooking, combined with scenes of the patrons eating (or trying to) and Slowik’s pained reactions to his diners, make us wonder how or why anyone could enjoy such a constrained experience. All of which is part of the point, even as events barrels toward the surreal and grotesque.
The Menu does stretch its meaning to the breaking point as it reaches its final stages, and its metaphors are perhaps a little too surface-level, but its stars, design, and tonal control make it an entertaining dish, nonetheless. You may not be completely satisfied, but you’ll still have fun while consuming it.
The Menu is out in theaters now.