Review: ‘The Menu’ is a slick dish
Something is afoot in The Menu, a film that is very obviously about more than just food. It follows a group of distinguished guests invited to Hawthorne, a fine dining establishment located at the safe, accessible intersection of remote and island. Celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) runs the show with the help and total subservience of his staff, who live on the island full time and work from sunrise to sundown—the first of many signs that something’s wrong. Before long, those signs become billboards.
Caught in the middle is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), the partner of overeager foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult, once again playing a zesty little twit who doesn’t know how in over his head he is). In addition to being the only unwealthy diner, Margot wasn’t on the original guest list, putting her at instant odds with the perfectionist Slowik. This tension—along with her general distaste for haute cuisine—gives her a head start on wanting to get the hell out of there. It also kicks the movie off at a clip: The Menu jumps giddily and headfirst into its story, wasting little time on setting tables.
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What little background is provided is mostly there to facilitate metaphors. The script, from The Onion alums Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, quickly reveals that its world of food, chefs, and customers is allegorizing the dynamics of art, artists, and audiences in general. It is not subtle about this. The guests—among whom is a prissy food critic, of course—debate Slowik’s intent behind each dish, postulate artistic influences and processes, remark that the dinner needs an ending to tie its themes together, and so on and so on. Slowik’s speeches before each meal are even more obvious: he’s tired of pouring his soul into art that’s capitalized, marketed, and thoughtlessly devoured by the most annoying class of people (that being the rich—you know, the kind of people who’d buy and ruin a social media platform). As the night descends into expected, signposted violence, the subtext is as straightforward and guessable as the story, even when the metaphors start piling on as if there’s allegorical power in numbers.
The Menu is a slicker dish outside its thematic ingredients. Director Mark Mylod—a creative mainstay of critically acclaimed shows like Succession and, uh, Entourage (ok, maybe critics deserve some lampooning)—has a great handle on tone and pace. The film walks a tightrope between farcical and self-serious, striking a perfect black comedy balance from which it rarely stumbles. Its attention to detail, from menacing production design to inspired set pieces to the lively, playful rhythm with which the film is edited, evokes a stylistic seamlessness that salves the subtextual shortfalls. And Ralph Fiennes is just fantastic as Slowik, a deranged, obsessed artist worthy of begrudging respect. The actors playing his staff, particularly Downsizing’s Hong Chau, make for hilariously stoic foot soldiers.
But those are the fun parts, and they’ve been swallowed by a cumbersome bag of tepid horrors and metaphors. At its most thematically and emotionally profound, The Menu expresses the same feelings about art and consumerism that Pig did last year but with half the power. It just tries to say too much with its tongue against its cheek.