The Menu skewers everything from our entitled elites to haute cuisine
Moments into The Menu, a scabrous social, political, and cultural satire directed by Mark Mylod (Succession, Shameless, Game of Thrones) from a Black List script credited to Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, a super-select clientele comprised of various members of our privileged, entitled elites, take a tour led by Elsa (Hong Chau), a stern, uncompromising maître d’, a dormitory set aside for the service workers who will prep, cool, and serve their upcoming multi-course meal. Almost all respond in astonishment and mild disgust at the rows of perfectly made beds and open toilet facilities. The lack of privacy and crowded conditions create a sense of unease that in time will grow into dread, denial, and quite possibly violence.
Before we get to any threats of violence, real or imagined, however, we meet the aforementioned select clientele as they gather at a marina for a brief water crossing to a nearby island where a neo-modernist restaurant, Hawthorne, and a celebrity chef, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), and his ultra-dedicated staff await along with a singular, high-end dining experience await. They get all that and more as Chef Slowik, the “personality” in a “cult of personality” that has formed around him with unquestioning, zealous fervor, puts a seemingly fiendish plan involving revenge of some kind or another, again both real and possibly imagined, into play.
For at least one diner, Margot Mills (Anya Taylor-Joy), a late fill-in as a date for Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), Chef Slowik’s ultimate fanboy, it’s an experience that holds a transitory interest at best. An obvious exception to the rich, powerful, and petty members of the group, Margot quickly becomes a subject of interest to Chef Slowik, not least because she presents a heretofore unplanned anomaly that, given the means and opportunity, might upend his carefully calibrated plans for his guests, each of whom was more than willing to pay a cool $1,250 a person for a dining experience to end all dining experiences.
Those guests include Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer), an ultra-famous food critic who’s both made and unmade Chef Slowik’s career, Ted (Paul Adelstein), Lillian’s editor and biggest sycophantic follower, A fading, borderline obscure movie star (John Leguizamo) traveling incognito with Felicity (Aimee Carrero), the movie star’s overambitious assistant, Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light), frequent visitors to the Hawthorne restaurant, and three tech-bros, Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro), and Dave (Mark St. Cyr).
Given the broad, stereotypical nature of the secondary characters, almost all defined broadly by traits typically associated with their respective social and economic class, The Menu leans heavily on Chef Slowik and his storytelling skills as he weaves the personal with the professional, describing the intent behind each meal with obsessive detail bordering on the blackly comic. As the anomaly, Margot inevitably shifts from one character among many, arm candy for the superficial, venal Tyler, to the central character, not just questioning or interrogating Chef Slowik’s motives, but ultimately challenging them as well.
Though the filmmakers behind The Menu aren’t adverse to skewering the pretensions behind, under, and around haute cuisine, it also takes an incredibly broad, sometimes scattershot approach to the targets of its satire, rarely allowing them to evolve beyond the caricatures we meet in the first scenes. That, in turn, lowers audience sympathy or empathy to near zero, leaving Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot as the only audience stand-in. While fine up to a point, the borderline absurd plot turns that pepper the second and third acts trade the often blistering, on-point satire for familiar shocks of the thriller kind. Even as it grinds towards a seemingly foregone conclusion, The Menu rarely lets up on the engaging or entertainment front, but it’s also difficult to shake the sense that it could have been so much more, instead settling for a rote ending that falls short of feeling earned or justified.
The Menu opens theatrically on Friday, November 18th.