“What school did you attend?” the murderous celebrity chef of The Menu asks one of his unlucky patrons of the evening.
“Brown.” she nervously replies.
“Sorry, you’re dying.”
This joke is a good summation of the wicked kind of fun that The Menu offers to its audience. It's another class-conscious film with a righteous fury behind it that speaks to the current cultural mindset, but one that stands out by being exceptionally witty with its venomous jokes (the film can often feel like a dark satire) and wisely keeping its story relatively small and self-contained. Add in a brilliant cast who deliver on some exceptional performances, and you’ve got a recipe for one of the more thoroughly entertaining takes on class issues in the modern era.
Directed by Mark Mylod (Shameless, Game of Thrones, Succession), the film is set on a private island where one percenters from all over arrive to taste the exquisite delicacies of renowned chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Slowik is a master of the culinary arts and has taken tremendous pride in his work throughout his esteemed career. In addition to creating meals for very wealthy and very important people, he’s also built a cultish following for himself - both his devoted restaurant staff and regular fans seem to worship the ground he walks on.
Slowik and his team run the world-famous Hawthorne restaurant on the island. They’ve been living onsite and serving the rich and the powerful for years now, and this type of existence has apparently worn down Slowik’s mind enough to the point where he can no longer stand it. He’s chosen this particular evening to finally snap, blaming the endless rotation of snobby and ungrateful guests for him losing his passion, his artistry, and apparently his sanity. The plan for tonight’s meal is for it to end with everyone dead: The guests, the staff, and himself.
This is a solid horror premise to go off of and writing duo Seth Reiss and Will Tracy smartly use the setup of Hawthorne’s fancy multi-course meal to build up the suspense with each successive one. There’s the expected bouts of blood like a finger getting severed or a bullet going through someone’s head, but The Menu also brings on psychological terrors as well, with Slowik and his team often berating and humiliating the guests as additional forms of punishment. If this sounds overly sadistic, rest assured that the film does a great job of never making things feel overly serious or even too mean-spirited. It’s often quite funny when a character gets their just desserts in this story, and the thrill of wondering what fresh hell the next course will bring to them is part of the fun.
Fiennes brings one his best recent performances as Slowik, who he imbues with multiple layers and careful character choices. There’s an obvious spiteful and villainous side to the man but a deep sadness to him as well; he’s a very practiced artisan and showman who we see at the end of his rope, weighed down by decades of regret. Slowik may have decided to turn on the elite but he still can’t fully shake his own tendencies of acting like them, showing clear annoyance whenever his meticulously crafted meal is interrupted and continuously insisting that everything he and his staff are doing must be done to the utmost perfection, even when that includes their own grand murder / suicide. Despite all that, he also has a clever and dry sense of humor he regularly deploys to insult oblivious guests. He’s a great and memorable character.
The rest of the cast gets to shine as well, with each guest representing the various ways Hawthorne’s wealthy clients have worn the staff down. There’s Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a self-proclaimed foodie and hardcore Slowik fan who belittles the experience by constantly needing to take pictures of the food on his phone and ignoring his more down-to-Eath date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s only been brought along because the restaurant doesn’t do solo reservations. There’s also food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), who treat the whole thing like an intellectual exercise and come across like they’re just trying their hardest to sound like the smartest people in the room.
There’s a trio of douchey tech bros (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang and Mark St. Cyr) who couldn’t care less about the experience and even a pair of regular Hawthorne customers (Reed Birney and Judith Light) for whom the experience has grown has grown a bit monotonous. John Leguizamo delivers a career highlight of his as washed-up actor George Díaz, who is content with lazily cashing in on his image with projects like food travel shows as his money slowly dwindles. He’s become a sellout much to the chagrin of his assistant and current girlfriend Felicity (Aimee Carrero), and Slowik’s reasoning for bringing him here on this particular evening is the most hilarious of the bunch.
The one person not planned for in this elaborate scheme was Margot, and as the night goes on the film becomes an engaging struggle between her and Slowik as the two try and scope each other out. Slowik has zero plans for anyone leaving the island alive, but Margot is both someone who he harbors no ill-will towards and a formidable match for him as well. Their dynamic is the strongest aspect of a film that’s packed with plenty to like already and it’s what truly carries the film through to its mostly satisfying ending.
There’s a good bit of suspension of disbelief required for The Menu, like how weird it is that literally every single staff member appears to be fully on board with the planned mass murder / suicide or how immediately the guests just seem to resign themselves to their fates. Mylod’s film is pointed with its social commentary yet at the same time rather loose with it, delivering some sharp commentary but still remaining skin-deep with what exactly it has to say about the issues it’s addressing (notice how there’s no politician dining at Hawthorne this evening).
But that general-ness of its themes is sometimes a strong suit for a movie that’s not particularly interested in trying to save the world or dismantle the system. The small scale is a benefit for a story like this and Mylod knows exactly where to set its ambitions. The Menu is a delectable cinematic treat, one that’s consistently smart, funny and engaging. It’s the most enjoyable take on the mantra of Eat The Rich (in this case, I guess it’s Feed The Rich) this whole year.
‘The Menu’ is now playing in theaters.