Food is more than just something you consume for survival; it is a chef’s canvas, and every bite tells a story of the chef’s passion for their craft. And whether it’s a greasy burger from a dive bar or a fig and walnut amuse bouche from The French Laundry, any meal can be considered art. But like other art mediums, cuisine can quickly become inaccessible for the working class and be reserved for only the ultra rich. Mark Mylod’s dark comedy, The Menu, sets out to critique this disparity, and while it tends to sizzle out in parts, the overall meal is enough to leave you satisfied.
The Menu follows a young couple, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), as they embark on a boat ride to a remote island for the culinary experience of their (well, mainly Tyler’s) dreams. On their boat is an envoy of the upper class, including a washed-up actor, a trio of finance bros, and a snobby food critic and her editor. If one didn’t know any better, they might think they’re watching the Season 3 premiere of The White Lotus.
The group is greeted by Elsa (Hong Chau), a to-the-point maitre-d-esque host. She gives them a tour of the island where the staff cooks, fishes, forages, slaughters, and gels (They gel, Jerry! They gel!) before a four-and-a-half-hour dinner service with the head chef, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), leading the charge. The worship of this celebrity chef is cult-like, and it’s easy to see why: his dishes are immaculate, and he invites his guests to participate in his acts of culinary theater. According to him, you don’t “eat” at his restaurant; you taste and savor each work of art. But soon, the diners find out how seriously this godly individual takes his craft and are forced to play a game only the staff knows the rules to.
A meal worth dying for.
Screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy both have backgrounds in writing scathing commentary (they both worked at The Onion together), and that skill translates to this script exceptionally well. Reiss and Tracy embrace the ridiculousness of the finest of fine dining and take everything to the next level. But while this mostly works for the film’s first half, the momentum starts to wear thin over time. It’s as if Reiss and Tracy only have one basic ingredient that’s been stretched out until there isn’t much left to say. But thanks to Mylod’s impeccable directing, even the most significant blunders here are captivating.
Mylod has experience directing tension from Game of Thrones and Succession, and it shows. Every scene is executed with such quiet precision that it’s impossible to look away. From the crisp sounds of food being prepped to the staff chanting “Yes, Chef” in perfect unison, The Menu makes The Bear look like an episode of the Great British Bakeoff.
While this may be considered a group ensemble, the biggest standouts are Taylor-Joy, Hoult, and Fiennes. Hoult plays more of a caricature, but he has the time of his life in this role, especially as the night becomes more unhinged. The film’s true complexity lies in both Taylor-Joy and Fiennes’ enigmatic characters, who play a game of cat-and-mouse that in turn unravels their deepest desires.
Reiss, Tracy, and Mylod’s aim at the outrageousness of gastronomic art mostly works by giving the audience a glimpse into the (literal) cut-throat industry. Anthony Bourdain once wrote, “Good food is very often, even most often, simple food.” And nothing rings more true when it comes to The Menu. Decadence doesn’t necessarily equate higher quality, and sometimes, something as simple as a carne asada taco can beat out the most expensive cut of meat. After seeing minuscule portions of foam, melon balls, and caviar, you’ll be craving the biggest, greasiest cheeseburger you can find once the credits roll.
The Menu is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.
Featured image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.
THE MENU - 8.5/10