A small group of diners, most of them absurdly wealthy, pretentious and self-absorbed, travel to a remote island for an elaborate private dinner, prepared specifically for them by a world-renowned chef. Soon, they discover that the chef has more in store for them than just food.
This is the plot of The Menu. If it sounds like a twisty thriller, it is. If it sounds like a satire, lampooning the sort of person who would eagerly pay $1250 to be lectured about “meaning” while eating high-concept meals, it is that, too. As a darkly comedic thriller, it is okay. The characters are clearly-drawn stereotypes, there is a strong sense of tone and the screenplay knows when to drop in some humor. However, it isn’t necessarily exciting on this level. The twists aren’t that interesting on their own and the characters aren’t really written to be engaging outside of what they represent.
No, The Menu (100 minutes, without the end credits) is much more intriguing as a vicious social satire. That is where the dialogue and performances truly get to shine. The characters are mostly users, who take whatever they want from the world, with no regard for who could possibly be hurt by it. They are thoughtless and the movie has a lot of fun exposing them for what they are. That aspect makes this consistently compelling yet, in the end, it seems like it may have bitten off a little more than it was able to chew. There are several parallels between what the movie is saying and the movie itself that might have been unintentional, but confuse its message nonetheless. It aims high and, though it doesn’t quite hit its mark, it still lands on “pretty good.”
The message comes from the intentionally thin characters, all played exactly as they needed to be. There is the self-important food critic (Janet McTeer), the fading movie star (John Leguizamo), the repeat customers (Reed Birney and Judith Light), the obnoxious employees of the restaurant’s chief investor (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang and Mark St. Cyr) and a completely oblivious foodie (Nicholas Hoult). Then there is the pompous chef (Ralph Fiennes), his terrifyingly loyal assistant (Hong Chau) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), the foodie’s date, who was a last-minute substitution for his now ex-girlfriend.
The standouts are Taylor-Joy, Hoult and Fiennes. Ralph Fiennes tends to play serious roles, so it is refreshing to see him ham it up as a chef who runs his kitchen like a cult. It is vital to him that his rules are followed so his detailed plans can be executed. That is why the surprise appearance of Margot is so alarming to him. Fiennes’ dry delivery makes his condescending insults even funnier.
Nicholas Hoult is equally terrific as an ignorant, spoiled, rich kid, who cares far more about impressing the chef than he does about his date. His continued fascination with each course, even when things take a turn toward horror, is a great running gag. His obsession with food is one of The Menu’s better statements regarding the thin line between making art for consumers and consuming art for status.
Anya Taylor-Joy has the toughest role because she is essentially representing the audience. She is a regular woman, not rich, not interested in food (beyond eating it), with no idea what to expect from this experience. Her sardonic responses to everything going on around her are amusing and give way to a believable shift in outlook when things begin to get crazy. The handful of scenes where Margot goes toe-to-toe with the intimidating chef are a definite highlight.
While The Menu does work better as satire than as a suspenseful thriller, it hits the notes it needs to as far as violence and mayhem goes. It doesn’t succeed at everything it attempts. However, the intelligent writing and performances make up for a lot. If nothing else, it certainly isn’t boring.
3½ out of 5
Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot
Ralph Fiennes as Chef Slowik
Nicholas Hoult as Tyler
Hong Chau as Elsa
Janet McTeer as Lillian
John Leguizamo as Movie Star
Paul Adelstein as Ted
Arturo Castro as Soren
Aimee Carrero as Felicity
Reed Birney as Richard
Judith Light as Anne
Rob Yang as Bryce
Mark St. Cyr as Dave
Directed by Mark Mylod
Screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy