The Menu (2022)
Wonderful Surprises Await You All.
Anyone who has ever resonated with the phrase “Eat the rich” will have their palate satisfied by Mark Mylod’s dark comedic satire/horror thriller, The Menu. Written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, The Menu is a literal knife’s edge take on consumption, the cost of obsession, and how the commodification of art has ruined the creator and also constructed an elite who only have access to products because of their wealth or social standing.
On an island somewhere in the Pacific Northwest is the exclusive Hawthorne restaurant run by feted Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The restaurant, famous for molecular gastronomy (oh Heston Blumenthal, what hast though wrought?) seats only twelve and at a stunning cost of $1,250 per head, is not a place you’d find a casual diner. Pretentious foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) takes his date Margot Mills (Anya Taylor-Joy) to Hawthorne, but as she was not originally on the guest list, her presence is troubling to Chef and his stern right-hand, Elsa (Hong Chau).
Other guests include conceited restaurant critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer), her fawning editor, Ted (Paul Adelstein), a trio of finance bros (Rob Yang, Mark St. Cyr, and Arturo Castro) whose boss is a major investor at Hawthorne, regular patrons married couple Richard (Reed Burney) and Anne (Judith Light), and finally a washed-up movie star (John Leguizamo) and his fed-up assistant, Felicity (Aimee Carrero).
Elsa conducts a tour of the island where all ingredients for the restaurant are sourced. She also takes the guests to the bootcamp-like accommodation for the staff and explains that their day begins at 5am and often doesn’t end until 2am. One of the finance bros asks if the staff ever feel burned out. Elsa’s rebuttal is one of a true believer — what they do at Hawthorne is create an ultimate experience. Little do the guests know how ultimate that experience is going to be.
Once in the restaurant, we see a guest sitting on her own, distinctly underdressed and getting black-out drunk. Her presence for the audience is the first clue that something is not quite right, but the diners (with the exception of Margot, who is not impressed by anything around her) are oblivious to her. They’re all avatars of the worst kind of people. The movie star is there because he is researching a comeback show which will involve him traveling the world and eating various local cuisine. He’s also, in his own words, “A fame whore” who pretends he is good friends with Chef Slowik. The finance bros are there simply because they can afford to go, and they relish showing off their wealth. Lillian Bloom and her editor are there by special invitation from Slowik — Lillian being one of his early champions but now eager to criticize his work as derivative. Tyler is there because he’s an unabashed fanboy, the kind of guy who has to photograph everything he eats and explain to his dates that artisanal food is “the raw materials of life and death.”
Chef Slowik’s menu for the evening is precisely crafted. It starts out in a fairly routine manner with the amuse bouche (underwhelming according to Lillian, but she still wants to be sure she’s tasting goat in the milky “snow”), but Chef’s musings on food become a mixture of faux-profundity, “I ask you one thing. Not to eat, but to taste,” which gradually devolve into a history of his personal trauma. By the time the deconstructed tacos arrive (after a particularly gut-wrenching story about Taco Tuesdays in the Slowik home), the guests finally realize that they’ve paid for an experience far darker than they can imagine. The printed tortillas show a fairly routine set of transgressions by the patrons (infidelity, cooking the books, a terrible movie, a set of photographs showing businesses that Lillian Bloom’s reviews have shut down), but they show Hawthorne has been investigating its customers and is repelled by their actions. The audience isn’t sure what’s going to happen, but it is clear that it’s nothing good.
The Menu is a little broad in its satire of the elite — not quite as broad as Ruben Östlund’s shooting-fish-in-a-barrel film The Triangle of Sadness (2022), but it is hardly revelatory that the incredibly wealthy skate by on privilege and ignoring the plight of working people. Only two characters are given particular depth, Fiennes’ Slowik, and Taylor-Joy’s Margot. That they recognize the exhaustion of being in service industries and they can both be bought for the right price is the emotional hook of the film. Hoult is excellent as the unexpected villain of the piece, Tyler — the actor recently making a meal out of playing unsavory characters (2018’s The Favorite and television’s The Great), but it is the brittle performances by Fiennes and Taylor-Joy that are the highlight.
The Menu moves almost seamlessly from comedy to horror, aided by the incredible work of cinematographer Peter Deming (known for his work on David Lynch films). The violence is captured with the same painstaking aesthetic that shows how haute cuisine is created and ends up on the table. Like Slowik’s Hawthorne menu, it is meticulous and also over the top enough to leave a lingering flavor.
Mylod’s film doesn’t quite reach the level of perfection that it wants to; the commentary about class gets muddied by the obvious nature of the script. It’s also hampered by thinly sketched-out motivations for the Hawthorne staff (with the exception of Chau’s Elsa). The nature of obsession and striving for perfection is reduced to casting pearls before swine, and perhaps that is an oversimplification of why artists of any kind make their art. The critical establishment is held up as much to blame for consumption as the fans are. The irony that Slowik chose to punish the movie star because he didn’t like one of his films is delicious but feasibly a bit on the nose.
Regardless, The Menu is a great deal of guilty fun. For anyone who has rolled their eyes at some person reducing their dining experience to an Instagram story or who has worked in the service industry, there is a strong sense of justice to the wild proceedings in the film. There are a couple of things in The Menu that needed to be better cooked, but overall, the film delivers an engaging time and will leave the audience with a tantalizing sardonic meal.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney