The Menu is as sharp and deadly as the knives used by the film’s famous chef; a cutting satire of foodie culture that has much to say about privilege, celebrity, and restaurants that charge the earth for plates of nonsense.
Director Mark Mylod and writer Will Tracy (who scripted The Menu with Seth Reiss) previously collaborated on a Season 2 episode of Succession – titled “Tern Haven” – which revolved around the Roy family saying awful things to each other over a tense dinner.
They obviously enjoyed that format, as The Menu feels like a spiritual sequel, taking a bunch of rich people, putting them around dinner tables, then watching the sparks fly.
The difference is, here the drama has been stage-managed, with celebrity chef Sowik (Ralph Fiennes) militantly planning proceedings so his patrons experience a meal they’ll never forget – if they survive the night.
The Starter – What happens in The Menu?
Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) are our way into the story – a bickering couple who set sail for Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant on a secluded island. They are joined by 10 other diners, all paying $1,250 a head, and all of whom seem equally unhappy.
Their number includes an actor whose career is on the slide, a self-important restaurant critic and her sycophantic assistant, and a trio of business bros with more money than sense.
They reach the island, then receive the tour, and it all feels a bit Willy Wonka as they walk through acres of forest and pasture while having rules barked at them by the terrifying maî·tre d’ Elsa (Hong Chau). Which isn’t the last time that Roald Dahl’s classic influences the narrative.
They then reach the stunning restaurant, where the group observe the cooks, take their seats, and prepare to be dazzled.
The Main Course – “too precious for just eating”
Before the food arrives, Chef Sowik instructs his customers not to eat, but to taste, and savour, and relish. “The Menu is too precious for just eating” he explains, with not a hint of irony.
Course after course is then served, though we’re dealing less with food and more with plates of pretentiousness. An early highlight includes the breadless bread plate that features “unaccompanied accompaniments.”
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Sowik weaves historical allegory into his dishes and tells stories as he serves, such as the truly shocking tale of a “Taco Tuesday” from his past. The night is fun at first but quickly becomes strange. Before sous-chef Jeremy delivers a course called “The Mess”, and in a flash, dinner turns deadly. Making this the point-of-no-return for both Hawthorne’s customers and the film itself.
Mercifully, The Menu then delivers, the plot becoming ever-more outlandish, but Reiss and Tracy’s script never losing site of what it wants to say about culinary culture.
While the ensemble delivering their lines is outstanding, the actors are clearly having a blast playing such awful characters. Nick Hoult is hilarious as a food geek who’s watched every episode of Chef’s Table – multiple times – without really understanding anything about the production of food. While John Leguizamo is just as funny playing an insecure movie star desperate to be recognized, even if it’s for projects he hates.
However, the movie belongs to Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy. Fiennes brings humor and intensity to Chef Sowik, and as the meal progresses, he turns into a truly terrifying creation. But the unexpected presence of Taylor-Joy’s Margot messes up his plan, causing the pair to have a running battle throughout the film’s second half. The actress gives as good as she gets, going toe-to-toe with Fiennes in some of the movie’s most electrifying scenes.
The Verdict – is The Menu good?
The Menu is as entertaining as satire gets. The movie takes aim at some pretty soft targets, but it nails each and every one of them, teasing and provoking the audience while managing to remain consistently funny.
It looks amazing, with restaurant and kitchen as sleek as you’d expect from a place like Hawthrone, where style has become more important than substance.
While it also manages to stick the landing, with the final meal – one that’s off-menu – ending the movie on a note of hope following the grim cynicism of what’s gone before. In a word, it’s delicious.
The Menu was reviewed at Fantastic Fest, and releases worldwide in November 2022.