“I need to know if you’re with us or with them.”
One of my boyfriend’s best friends is a notoriously fussy diner. She will not go to any restaurant she hasn’t approved beforehand, she will make a significant number of adjustments to what she selects and she will almost always find the final experience to be lacking. When my boyfriend and I went to the screening of The Menu on Monday evening, we laughed and howled at the total lunacy that was playing out on the screen. There was a great deal of delight to be taken at seeing a group of (mostly) elites having to answer for whatever past transgressions brought them to this fateful dinner. On the way home, I asked my boyfriend why he enjoyed the film since it took a lot of convincing to even get him to the screening. He asked if I was kidding before exclaiming: “Because it’s about Debbie!”
On a remote island, an exclusive restaurant called Hawthorne run by a celebrity chef named Julian (Ralph Finnes) prepares to serve the latest round of diners. Among the group of arrivals are foodie fan Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), food critic Lillian (Janet McTeer), a movie star (John Leguizamo) and a longtime married couple (Judith Light and Reed Birney). As Julian’s maitre d Elsa (Hong Chau) oversees each course, the guests start to notice that something is not quite right. Throughout the evening, several twists and shocks will cause them to suspect that they might not be leaving the island alive.
Crafting a solid dark comedy is hard enough since it’s a breed of film that asks audiences to laugh at situations that they would otherwise find appalling in everyday life. The addition of thrills to the equation and the way both of them and the laughs are used to create and sustain a very specific momentum is near impossible, which is probably why this sub-genre isn’t attempted as often as it could be. Fortunately, director Mark Mylod knows this specific tone. The director’s little-seen 2005 effort, The Big White, was chock full of laughs, drawing on situations that called on the dark side of human behavior and exposed the ridiculousness of humanity in the process.
With The Menu, Mylod proves he’s just as interested in the glee that can be found in the absurdist nature of society and loads the film with some crackling macabre humor. Photos of the guests are imprinted into tortillas, exposing the bad behavior they’ve engaged in and a customer gets his finger chopped off for being a tad bit difficult. Elsewhere, Julian’s sous chef shoots himself in front of the crowd after the former announces the many ways he’s failed to live up to his potential. In a way, the biggest laugh comes from watching certain guests (McTeer’s critic, in particular) try and pretend that the madness in front of them isn’t happening at all. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, but for a select few, it’s all perfectly dark and wonderfully hysterical.
The strongest feature of The Menu, however, is the way it stays totally in the realm of brilliant social satire. More than just an examination of the haves vs the have-nots, the film looks at the class system that exists within the restaurant world. Is The Menu an exercise in one group exacting revenge on another? Not exactly. While there is a fun allegory about the server serving those who deserve to be served that rings true, the film’s goals aren’t as obvious as that. The events that transpire aren’t about revenge so much as they are about justice with every customer being called out for some dark deed from their past. Echoes of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” ring out as the traditional pecking order society has given everyone is cast aside and people are reduced to their instincts and primal nature.
If there’s a downside to The Menu, it’s that there aren’t any real characters to be found amongst the dark laughs. This is a film whose sole priorities are its subtext and black comedy. Still, that doesn’t stop this great collection of actors from being present and full-on having an absolute blast diving into the film’s world. Leguizamo and McTeer’s attempts to hold on to their sanities are hysterical, while Finnes makes Julian an intriguing svengali of sorts and Taylor-Joy makes Margot a watchable enough protagonist. However, it’s Chau who steals the show as Elsa. As second in command, Elsa is easily The Menu’s most menacing figure and the actress totally embraces the chance to jump off the deep end, which she does superbly.
Barring a few exceptions, The Menu isn’t the kind of mainstream movie that Hollywood makes a lot of anymore. There are no straight-up heroes or villains and those who come close to fitting those archetypes are written as caricatures rather than actual people. Furthermore, the lack of a cohesive through-line is hard to ignore, despite the many twists and turns that occur. And yet there’s so much about the film that’s cause for celebration if you’re a specific kind of audience member. The Menu is a horror tale, a pitch-perfect black comedy, a cautionary tale about devotion, and a send-up of the out-of-touch side of society, including possibly the very kind who greenlit the film. Mass appeal is certainly up in the air, as it would be with any movie that goes to the places this one does. For some of us, however, it’s simply delectable.