There’s a certain amount of money you can amass (there’s not a specific number, per se, but you probably know it when you have it sitting in your bank account) where there are just no more physical things you can buy that will make you feel…you know, alive, and better than other people, which is the more important part. So you turn your attention to elite, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, where you can rest secure in the knowledge that only you and maybe ten other people in the entire world know what it’s like to have done this one specific thing. That feeling of exclusivity is a heady drug and is taken to deliberately exaggerated heights in The Menu, a razor-sharp satire skewering foodie culture and the pretentiousness of the ultra-elite. With strong performances from a talented ensemble cast who look like they’re having the time of their lives, The Menu is strange, unexpected, and deliciously brutal.
The story begins as a troupe of well-to-do food enthusiasts prepare to embark on a unique culinary journey, taken by yacht to a private island, where Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), one of the most famous food artists in the world, will prepare for them a special meal, the menu of which is unique to that specific night. The opportunity to go to this dinner is a privilege reserved for only the extremely wealthy and well-connected, and this night’s guests represent exactly the sort of rich caricatures one could imagine being willing to spend five figures on a single meal just for bragging rights. A sneering food critic who would put Anton Ego from Ratatouille to utter shame; a C-list actor hoping to land himself a Food Network travelogue show; a trio of tech bros looking for little more than the next dopamine hit; a wealthy middle-aged philanderer on an anniversary date with his wife.
Along for the ride is a young foodie named Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), the sort of pretentious 30-something who mainlines Top Chef and works “amuse-bouche” into casual conversations, and his gourmet philistine companion Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who was a last-minute replacement when his original date fell through. (It’s only awkward if you make it awkward.) From the very beginning, she is unimpressed by the grandiose affections of the restaurant, much to his chagrin. To Tyler, food is art; to Margot, it’s an ideally pleasurable means of sustaining life. So when Chef Slowik’s highly conceptual dishes begin to appear, things that genuinely stretch the definition of food, well … let’s just say that she’s maybe not the target audience for this ultimate in luxury dining.
On this remote island, Chef Slowik has a team of culinary disciples running an operation that is part restaurant business, part cult. (Hong Chau, a standout in an already outstanding cast, plays the front-of-house role with the fervor of a true believer.) While their meal starts out pretentious but harmless enough, it quickly becomes clear that these visionary chefs have prepared a singular culinary experience that will conclude with a not insignificant body count.
The satire of The Menu is wielded like a blunt instrument, its targets clearly chosen for their detachment from reality and their belief that this one ephemeral dinner will somehow slake their thirst for the new, the exciting, and the unattainable. As the situation grows more and more dire, they are unable to resist seeing it through to its inevitable conclusion, to be a part of something so exclusive. It’s a damning indictment of the ultra-rich couched in humor and malevolent playfulness.
Ralph Fiennes has rarely been better, taking his trademark intensity and using it for warped comedic purposes. Nicholas Hoult also makes a tremendous impression, with his desperation to be liked by the chef and seen as an aficionado practically dripping off him. And although Anya Taylor-Joy essentially operates as an audience stand-in, she’s clever and acerbic enough to give her character greater depths. Her utter disinterest and lack of appreciation for any of the high-concept cookery is perfectly balanced by how seriously everyone else is taking this dinner, especially as the stakes escalate.
The Menu utterly skewers elitist foodie culture, mercilessly brutal towards not just the snobbish, entitled patrons but the chefs who buy into their own BS about the sacred narrative of food. With Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Nicholas Hoult all at the top of their game, The Menu nails the often absurd escalation of stakes that could threaten to topple a less laser-focused production. Against a landscape of economic instability, moviegoers with a taste for class-based satire are eating good.