If one is going to watch a film that skewers the one percent, there’s nothing wrong with preparing a good meal to go along with it. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, which had similarly dark elements as The Menu but leaned further on the comedy. That doesn’t propel one easily ahead of the other, but there’s plenty I can appreciate about how The Menu is just as much a thriller as it is a satirical takedown of the oblivious wealthy class. Fitting this concept around an exclusive restaurant and a chef taking things to new extremes is a nice touch aided by a terrific performance from Ralph Fiennes. And with the way this movie mines plenty of humor by finding contempt for entitled individuals, well, that’s all just gravy to go on top.
Fiennes plays Julian Slowik, a celebrity chef who operates an extravagant restaurant located on a remote island. Here, the prepared menu has a concept and theme in mind, allowing the cuisine to serve as a sort of art that only the most wealthy can experience. For this film’s trip to the island, however, it would appear Chef Slowik has more in store for the guests than they may expect.
Whether or not one keys into just how desperate the situation may become, The Menu allows some hope in the form of our gateway character, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). She is Tyler’s (Nicholas Hoult) date for this dining experience, a last-minute replacement after Tyler’s girlfriend had broken up with him. Margot is no foodie and finds herself far more concerned with the uncommon things around her than with the food in front of her.
Given the exclusivity of the restaurant, there is a limited number of guests, allowing the movie to place several character actors and comedic performers among the available tables. John Leguizamo and Aimee Carrero play a famous movie star and his assistant, Reed Birney and Judith Light play a very wealthy married couple, Janet McTeer portrays an infamous food critic, and Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, and Rob Yang are a trio of tech bros. One gets the idea when it comes to understanding the sort of clientele this place gets.
A lot of the fun of this film comes from the mounting tension. We know all is not right, but it takes some big pushes to get the guests on board with this thought. Being so above it all means not accepting when a situation can become dangerous. Instead, it becomes a curiosity. Hong Chau stars as Elsa, Chef Slowik’s second-in-command, who provides a tour of the grounds at the start, and communicates the most with guests while seated at their table. It’s such a precise presence that one cannot help but laugh at her matter-of-fact attitude, yet also worry about what it would mean to press her any further.
While it’s not much of a twist to realize the chef and his staff have more sinister intentions for the night in mind, seeing how The Menu balances a certain sort of rationale for what’s taking place as the meals are explained and how this works as satire provides continual intrigue. Given the stylized nature of how people act, it’s not as though we can expect realism to ultimately conquer all. Instead, the heightened performances only serve to make the proceedings more humorous. In turn, that allows for shocking moments to land harder, as they should.
As a satire, while it’s not new to see a film provide a takedown of the wealthy and those with fully-formed condescending egos, providing a way to contain several types in a room and make that continually entertaining is impressive. Director Mark Mylod (Succession), working from a script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, makes the most out of creating unsympathetic characters (for the most part) that can still earn the audience’s attention when voicing their concern. As the film gets deeper into the five-course meal, more is revealed, of course, and there are some effectively human moments when certain realizations are made concerning the presumed fate of our guests.
Helping all of this come together, once again, is the work by Fiennes and the rest of this cast. The key to Fiennes is how he’s not perfect or putting on a ruse of sorts in his inflections. He believes in what he is saying, but is also not a man from wealthy means. This chef has a sense of humor, but he’s also an oddball ruined by certain obsessions. As a result, Fiennes sneakily delivers one of the best comedic performances of the year without resorting to one-liners and big energy.
Countering his bizarre energy is Taylor-Joy’s effectively acerbic presence as Margot. Not being one of the elite, she sees through the wonder of it all and expresses plenty of disinterest in a way that cuts through Chef and the night’s proceedings. This plays quite well against Hoult’s food-obsessed Tyler. We learn just enough about the other guests to know that while Tyler is perhaps “innocent” in many ways, he may as well be the worst just in the way he brags about having seen every episode of Chef’s Table multiple times and insults his date for having a less-developed taste pallet. Stripped of all his vanity, Hoult makes a meal out of his role for the better.
In regards to the food, by the way, there’s plenty to appreciate in how it’s presented. Whether or not it looks appetizing, there’s a specific effort put into making it appear unlike anything one has seen. Matched with onscreen titles to humorously rundown what goes into each meal (sometimes it’s more than just the food-related ingredients), there’s much to like about this presentation beyond just the wine paired with it.
The Menu is not looking to go any deeper than it needs to, but it knows how to get a rise out of its audience. Some good laughs come with the absurdity of this premise, as well as plenty of reasons to be shocked as things begin to heat up. It’s a fun film and a well-acted one at that. The preparation and skill that goes into an elaborate meal is a fitting way to sum up what went into the making of this film, as it delivers on its unique and violent way of dining in.