There is some irony inherent in writing and reading a review of a film like The Menu. Its main subject is how detached, intellectualized preoccupation of a pursuit curdles all of its joy and meaning. The topic at hand is high-end dining and foodies, but it just as well could be film criticism or any pleasure pursued with academic rigor. The characters of The Menu have separated eating from sustenance, the intrinsic purpose of food. Perhaps their love of food was once as simple as “enjoying” it, but that is long gone. Now they are obsessed with it. Anton Ego from Ratatouille would have fit right in: “I don’t like food; I love it. If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.” (I thought of Ratatouille many times during this film.)
The Menu follows a fancy dinner run by the world-renowned Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) that gradually turns into unhinged, violent insanity. Everyone in attendance is a disciple of Slowik’s culinary artistry except Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a last-minute addition to the exclusive outing. Much of the film’s fun is the scenario’s gradual slip to derangement — the exact tipping point of the meal is debatable, but one of the first dishes is a bread plate served without bread, so even at its best, the titular menu is some “avant deconstructed bullshit,” to quote Margot.
The satire in The Menu is so broad and surface-level that it would completely faceplant without a sense of fun, but it thankfully offers that in spades. It’s well-cast and terrific fun as a black comedy and breezy horror flick.
The supporting cast is filled with small but amusing turns of rich people trying to figure out if the stranger-and-stranger meal is an intellectual exercise or a prank. Margot’s date Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a Slowik fanboy and amateur chef, gets repeatedly humiliated to hilarious effect. John Leguizamo plays a movie star who gets all of ten lines but slays every single one. The big ensemble is filled with sneaky-good comedy actors.
It definitely helps that the runtime is a brisk hundred minutes (the Internet cites 107, but that includes credits). This is the polar opposite of Triangle of Sadness’s blunt-force 2.5 hours. Even at this length, the premise starts to buckle in the final act, but any longer would have been movie-ruining.
Unfortunately, the movie takes a sharp southward dive in its final fifteen minutes, and you can pin the inflection point to a specific monologue in which Margot essentially states “here are the themes.” Whereas the movie leading up to that point painted most of the characters as human (minus the psychotic chef and staff), the conclusion discards basic human logic to emphasize its larger point, which was never ambiguous in the first place. The incendiary conclusion is symbolically effective, but narratively incoherent.
Fiennes is absolutely terrific as Slowik, funny and intimidating, and Taylor-Joy keeps up well enough, though without much depth. Taylor-Joy’s part was supposedly written for Emma Stone, who might have had more to contribute to the character than Taylor-Joy’s reading which is heavy on scowls and grimaces.
The production is a bit underwhelming. The setting is intriguing and boxed-in, but the film’s look overall is quite shallow and uncinematic. It’s never visually broken, and still better than nearly every direct-to-streaming movie, but unremarkable. It made me think of an episode of prestige TV — it could just as well be a super-sized episode of Black Mirror. Incidentally, director Mark Mylod’s background is in prestige TV (Succession, Shameless), but Alexander Payne was attached at one point, and I’m fascinated at what Payne’s take on this script would have been.
I can’t quite call it a “great” movie, but it’s some of the most fun I’ve had with a film this year thanks to its zippy dialogue, satirical genre stew, and brisk pace.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film