Even for many self-professed “foodies,” it’s insane to spend a hefty amount on a spread consisting of eight bite-sized courses. Squandering hundreds of dollars on a dime-sized portion of deconstructed and deglazed huckleberry foam (I don’t actually know whether this is a thing, I just made it up), at a time when there’s a crushing baby formula shortage? On sheer principle, let’s say please. Then again, where do you draw the line between yourself and the upper ranks of the bourgeoisie in a capitalistic society founded on inequality, where everyone seems to be in possession of certain advantages and assets that others aren’t? And isn’t splurging a little bit, perhaps for a special occasion once in a blue moon, innocent enough?
Not that anyone has to ruminate on such humanitarian and lefty considerations in Mark Mylod’s deliciously light The Menu, a dark eat-the-rich comedy-thriller that goes down more like a fancy bistro burger with a side of crunchy pommes frites than an extravagant tasting menu of once-in-a-lifetime flavors. After all, these are all people who dropped over a thousand bucks (and that’s probably before wine pairings) on an evening at celebrity chef Slowik’s (an eerily godlike Ralph Fiennes) establishment Hawthorne, and not necessarily for a special occasion either.
Well, for all but one (plus the staff), it should be clarified. Arriving on a private island with Nicholas Hoult’s obnoxious Tyler, Margot (a searchingly enthralling Anya Taylor-Joy) seems to be the no-nonsense kind who calls bullshit when she sees it. She, a normie who’s nobody’s fool, certainly has not paid for the meal herself. After being surveyed during a rigorous check-in process, Margot proceeds into the spectacularly minimalist dining hall (erected by production designer Ethan Tobman with chilling precision) and shrugs off the privilege of eating at Hawthorne with, “It’s your money,” to a mortified Tyler. So what if she’s a last-minute replacement for Tyler’s Hawthorne-confirmed dinner date? She might as well enjoy this culinary excursion and live a little.
Enjoyment is hard to come by at Hawthorne, however, where Margot is surrounded by insufferable one-percenters, celebrities, mafia-types, a hard-to-impress food critic, and staff who can’t stop questioning Margot’s unexpected attendance. Margot’s date gets scolded for taking a photo of the presented plates—it’s against the rules, you see. And every meal comes with a pre-lecture about the locally raised and grown ingredients as well as the emotional past experiences that inspired the flavors. These early scenes are genuinely funny and well observed about the hysterical rituals of the upper-crust, so clueless about the bounds of their licenses that they can’t even sniff the hostility of Elsa (a terrifically icy Hong Chau) as tensions in the dining room rise with twists that spill out, course by ridiculous course.
Instead of spelling out the salty turns and sour reveals that Chef Slowik’s exclusive menu dishes out, let’s just say that it’s the rich that get served up (in various ways) in The Menu, once the script—tightly but frothily penned Seth Reiss and Will Tracy—spills some blood on the kitchen floor. In the end, what we have is a tired cook: once overjoyed by foods both simple and adventurous, but painfully uninspired and angry nowadays, with his craft hijacked by those rich enough to afford it, but not sensitive enough to truly appreciate it.
A lot of credit goes to Peter Deming’s très chic cinematography, which makes genuine use of the film’s one-location setting, dialing up the class tension via studious framing choices under Mylod’s baton. The script also finds inventive avenues to amplify the stakes despite the by-design limits of the uncluttered The Menu. At one point, guests disperse out to the island’s grounds like headless chickens as ordered by Slowik. At another, Margot tries to find a way out of this madness to which she increasingly doesn’t belong as someone who’s long since earned the resourceful, problem-solving head on her shoulders. Briefly, we also meet a law enforcement intruder as part of a well-played scene, through which Reiss and Tracy summon a hilarious sense of exasperation.
It’s tempting to compare the pleasurable aromas of The Menu to that of Knives Out or Triangle Of Sadness, two recent movies that superbly satirize the detached and incompetent upper class. But don’t be surprised if The Menu’s aftertaste feels more like the warm and fuzzy hug of Ratatouille. Like that Pixar delicacy, Mylod’s stew saves its most mouth-watering plate for the last. That’s why it’s fiendishly delightful.