2022, R, 107 min. Directed by Mark Mylod. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, John Leguizamo, Janet McTeer, Paul Adelstein, Reed Birney, Judith Light.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 18, 2022
Back in the early Nineties, there was a BBC sitcom called Chef!, in which Lenny Henry played an arrogant and overbearing but undeniably talented chef of a two-star Michelin restaurant. At the same time, Mark Mylod was directing episodes of another BBC comedy, surrealist sketch series The Fast Show. It's almost impossible to think that Mylod didn't have at least a soupçon of Chef!'s acerbic approach to kitchen life mulling when he directed jet-black satire The Menu, a cutting examination of our deranged obsession with dining.
The Menu begins with an amuse-bouche of cultural snobbery as foodie Tyler (Hoult, a giggling fanboy) drags his girlfriend, Margot (Taylor-Joy), on to the boat that will take them to Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant run by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Fiennes). The rest of the guest list is a smörgåsbord of desiccated old white millionaires (Birney and Light, perfectly selected), actors and their assistants (a self-spoofing Leguizamo and Carrero as his fixer), and a trio of technodudebros, all of them seemingly there solely to be able to say they engaged in this excessive act of consumption. The only person who comes close to Margot's dismissiveness of the whole situation is food columnist Lillian Bloom (a deliciously arch McTeer) and her lickspittle editor. In that part Adelstein arguably plays the broadest of the ensemble but still within the mood of the increasingly ridiculous comedy.
And there is something ridiculous at play here, even if it is absurdly true to reality. When Lillian rolls her eyes at snow on the plate (so passé) it feels like an indictment of every food fad that has swept the culinary world. And how do we even know about such idiocies? From the endless TV shows that deify chefs as (pun intended) the ultimate taste-makers, achieving cult status – a term that definitely applies to Slowik. Played with watery-eyed intensity and razor-edged humility by Fiennes, Mylod makes sure that it's clear that he and Margot recognize each other – not in something so simple as a personal connection, but in knowing that the bourgeoisie are in for more than just courses and wine pairings. This is dinner as Fluxus art prank, the conceptual nature of the dinner overtaking anything so prosaic as food.
The script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy isn't a one-note diatribe, but a complex mélange of commentary on food as art, commerce, status symbol – everything, it seems, but nutrition. As Slowik's deliciously unhinged plan for the night unfolds (as Tyler insists on telling Margot, his dinners tell a story), it's also clear how specific this is to the culinary industry. This is the Nightcrawler of the restaurant trade, a slippery narrative in which the villain of the piece (or rather, one of) makes the best points. The complicity of the diner in this insanity is pivotal, even as the revelations take a ghoulish turn – after all, what's that saying about eggs and omelettes?
And, like any good meal, The Menu has balance, like Margot poking at the edges and Slowik's belligerent right hand, Elsa (a quietly terrifying Chau who, between this and The Whale, is dominating the year's end) pushing her back into her chair. Equally, Hoult and Taylor-Joy are a perfect pairing, with his established grasp of pomposity previously exhibited in The Great, and her showing her adroitness with class narratives, last seen in the equally biting Thoroughbreds. But nowhere is Taylor-Joy better than in her moments with Fiennes, their antagonism deeply complimentary to each other. Soup to nuts, The Menu is satisfying and rich, yet lean and cutting.