Review: “The Menu”

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that director Mark Mylod’s first feature film in over 10 years (his previous one was the 2011 Chris Evans/Anna Faris romantic comedy “What’s Your Number?” a movie I forgot even existed until I looked that up) is a skewering of upper class vapidity. Mylod’s extensive television credits include, most recently, a stint as a director and executive producer on the first three seasons of HBO’s “Succession,” a sharp portrait of the power struggle within the family who owns a vast media conglomerate. Mylod’s film “The Menu”—written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy and counting the reigning king of terrible satire Adam McKay and Will Ferrell among its producers—is far less cunning. Despite some hard laughs and glimpses at some insightful commentary here and there, it falls more in line with recent comedy movies such as Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winning “Triangle of Sadness” or even, to a lesser extent, the upcoming “Knives Out” sequel “Glass Onion,” who let their broad and obvious capitalism-is-bad and rich-people-are-shallow messaging suffice rather than digging for something more complex and profound.

And the profound is possible in this scenario. Think about the restaurant sequence in last year’s drama “Pig,” which manage to say more about humanity while still critiquing high-end food trends than the entirely of “The Menu” does. That’s not to say that the film isn’t still entertaining, especially as it takes increasingly darker and more absurd turns. The film is set at Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant on a private island presided over by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Guests are whisked to the site via yacht and welcomed by frosty guide Elsa (a scene-stealing Hong Chau), whose faux friendliness masks the true nature of the meal the guests are about to partake in. Among the party members are high-profile food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein); a fading actor (John Leguizamo) and his assistant (Aimee Carrero); a trio of finance bros; an older couple who have eaten at the restaurant numerous times; and wealthy foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his girlfriend Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). What begins as an expectedly pretentious parade of tiny, elaborate dishes, with chef Julian waxing poetic about the origins of each one as the servers march them out to the diners with military-like precision, turns after Julian’s real motivation comes to light. The wrench in the plan: Margot, a last-minute addition to the guest list who isn’t a member of the upper crust like everyone else.

Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Menu

“The Menu” is frequently funny, from its lavish presentation of every dish (featuring some great detailed food shots courtesy of cinematographer Peter Deming) and the cast’s game performances. Hoult in particular, in both quickened speech and jittery mannerisms, well embodies the kind of entitled fanboy character he’s portraying. Taylor-Joy, meanwhile, possesses both the hardened nature and give-no-shits attitude required of the protagonist in this situation for the movie to work, and Fiennes never misses, allowing tinges of humanity to bleed through the gravitas at the right moments. The production design works in the story’s favor as well, creating a frequently cold and clinical atmosphere for the dining room in which the bulk of the movie is set.

But “The Menu” never ends up leading the audience in as interesting a direction as its premise posits, and something—perhaps the film’s off-beat humor—prevents it from ever feeling as tense or suspenseful as it ought to. The ingredients never come together in the finale as the cat-and-mouse game between Margot and Julian comes to a head. Any revelations, including reminders of past joy, reached feel inconsequential, its commentary on upper class entitlement undercooked (especially in the way in which it incorporates those who serve them into the conflict) and the film just sort of putters to a stop. “The Menu” is still just strange and raucous enough to be a good time, even if it doesn’t leave you with little more than a hankering for a real greasy cheeseburger.

“The Menu” opens in theaters on November 18. Runtime: 106 minutes. Rated R.

2 thoughts on “Review: “The Menu”

  1. “The Comic Strip Presents” of the BBC’s Channel Four took a dark-comedy crack at this same capitalism-is-bad and rich-people-are-shallow subject matter with Eat the Rich (1987). The politically incorrect religious, political, and social classes humor is totally British; it flopped on U.S. screens and video, natch. And it didn’t do much better in the U.K. where it is rated as one of that country’s “50 Greatest Cinematic Flops.”


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