A fun, lightweight piece of class satire, The Menu has plenty of zest but isn’t too acquired of a taste. Its structure mirrors many similar films from Ari Aster’s Midsommar to an average episode of Inside No. 9, but it manages to strike a balance between satisfying its audience’s intellectual curiosity and keeping things fast-moving and accessible enough for the shallowness of its social commentary not to feel like too much of a bore. There are issues here and there and it’s not the most inspired or original take on its themes, but a starry cast and ghoulish premise should be enough to satisfy most audiences.
The film follows Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), an escort hired by Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), to accompany him to an exclusive island dining experience offered by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Once there though, it becomes clear that Julian has something special in store for tonight’s guests, to which Margot’s unexpected presence is an unwelcome complication. The film doesn’t wait too long to show its cards and once it does, it’s fairly predictable how it will proceed, with the evening devolving into a haute-cuisine themed night of peasant’s revolt as Julian and his team serve up some just desserts to the specially selected lineup of upper-class gastronomes.
Director Mark Mylod knows how to keep things running smoothly and keeps a steady pace, neatly judging the film’s switches in tone, and moving gracefully from heart-pulsingly tense to laugh-out loud funny at a twitch of Ralph Fiennes’s hawk-like neck. First time scriptwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracey have provided a juicy premise and as Game of Thrones already demonstrated, Mylod knows well how to smooth over any cracks. Said cracks take the form of a somewhat lackluster and anticlimactic resolution, a few set pieces that peter out without conviction and a contrived action beat that feels out of place and clumsily integrated into the story.
We’d have to go into spoiler territory to discuss some of these missed opportunities, but those who’ve already seen the film will know what I mean when I say that the “man’s folly” course sets up something intriguing but doesn’t really resolve climactically, despite ending with the film’s funniest moment. All of these issues are present, but the confidence of Mylod’s direction and the cast limit their impact and all but pull them off. Above all, it helps that the film never lingers on them, moving onto the next course with disarming punctuality. If a moment doesn’t quite ‘gel’, Fiennes claps his hands and delivers a palate cleanser.
Among the cast, Fiennes is necessarily the standout, with a tasty role that plays to all his natural gifts as a performer: a sinister aura, an air of fastidiousness and a calm, irresistible authority. Hoult is delightfully pathetic and condescending and takes center-stage in perhaps the film’s most successful sequence, as Tyler’s mettle is truly put to the test. Taylor-Joy is as inherently watchable as ever and a natural point of view character, though she doesn’t quite seem the outsider her role demands her to be. Her natural star glamour, model looks and A-lister confidence are just too good a fit for a world of exclusive dining that’s supposedly ‘not for her’. The rest of the ensemble are good too, with choice parts for Janet McTeer and John Leguizamo, though Hong Chau struggles with probably the toughest role of the bunch, getting the lion’s share of Reiss and Tracey’s clumsier lines and more awkward scenes, including her own subplot that comes from nowhere and quickly goes back there.
As a satire of the wealthy elite and the pretensions of so-called fine dining, The Menu brings little fresh to the table and its script could maybe have done with longer in the oven, but as its message would have us believe, there’s value in simple, nutritious, and indulgent ingredients, well assembled and served with relish. It’s hearty, macabre entertainment that’s saying perhaps a little less than it might hope to, but is watchable and compelling throughout, ticking by at a brisk, addictive pace. Perhaps a richer and more complex treatment of these themes would’ve been more satisfying in the long run, but The Menu‘s familiar story isn’t out to shock, provoke, or truly challenge its audience, but to show them a good time. It’s junk food that tastes like silver service, and it’s worth submitting yourself to the deception.