A high-tension, comedic thriller on a bed of murky yet compelling satire, The Menu (2022) blends many styles and influences together with an entertaining wit and snark that is sure to delight audiences. With a strong combination of performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes heightening this loosely structured comedy, The Menu manages to maintain an impressive level of tension and suspense that elevates some of its lacking cultural critiques.
We begin almost in media res as Tyler (Nicolas Hoult) and Margot (Taylor-Joy) wait to board a boat en route to the prestigious and uber-exclusive Michelin three-star restaurant Hawthorn headed by the revered Chef Slowik (Fiennes). By beginning moments before the arrival at the restaurant where the entire film will take place, we are given an active role in sleuthing out details about Tyler and Margot, as well as the other guests and the restaurant. This allows The Menu to be wonderfully engaging, giving the film an almost Agatha Christie-like momentum to the narrative.
Succession director Mark Mylod and writer Will Tracy collaborate with The Onion writer Seth Reiss (Tracy also worked at The Onion for a period) on this uniquely satisfying thriller comedy that blends styles of modern satire, to mostly enjoyable results. Unlike the Palme D’Or winning high-class satire of Triangle of Sadness (2022), the targets of satire in The Menu are not always clear. As the untethering of Chef Slowik’s mind allows an undercutting of his goals to widen the scope of the movie’s satire, Reiss and Tracy take aim more at the culture around the industry through a wider range of archetypes and ideas than cheaply mocking the individuals. This cloudiness may not add depth to its satirical lens, but it certainly adds intrigue through its obscuration.
Mylod’s style of heightened realism mixes compellingly with long-time Lynch collaborator Peter Deming’s work as a cinematographer to create a series of tense but compelling images that you will want to savour. Mocking the foodie content that permeates the internet while also executing it to an absurd degree, Deming and Mylod allow the audience to laugh alongside them, while also enjoying the voyeurism of experiencing fine dining from a theatre seat.
Working with three-star Michelin chef Dominique Creen as a consultant, there is an air of realism to this highly arch film that allows the comedic moments to flourish. The best of these moments are handled by the maître d’ Elsa, played by the perfectly cast Hong Chau, who makes an absolute meal out of this script.
Having a compass realignment structure of the courses, formalised in the metronomic Slowik clap, allows the film to bounce around different ideas and set pieces over the night. A series of comedic set pieces set out in an episodic format established by the meal courses, The Menu feels at times like a free-flowing sequence of comedic bits, attached to a lifeline of the structure established by the restaurant. This freedom allows the film to have its cake and eat it too; exploring different characters and comedic moments, while always having the ability to return to the tense thriller story with a powerful clap.
Certain writing decisions feel rebellious, like allowing us access to Chef Slowik’s motives early on, destabilising your expectations of where the night will take you. This creates an almost free-associative middle act that makes each individual moment enjoyable but lacks a certain level of cohesion (a comment literally made on one of the film’s many spinning-food-plate sequences) that leaves a unique taste in the mouth. This complication of knowing whether these decisions improve the film or work to its detriment will make The Menu a fascinating rewatch.
A consistently compelling and interesting script, critiquing a form of art culture in a very similar style to 2019’s Velvet Buzzsaw, without the third-act issues that derailed that film. Where filmmaker Dan Gilroy asked the most from Jake Gyllenhaal in a truly bombastic performance, Mylod has Fiennes working with a sense of reserved enlightenment that allows the film to thrive in a truer thriller sense, while still achieving a wonderfully arch critique on both the creators and consumers of a certain high art field.
Joining a group of truly enjoyable all-in-one-night films, The Menu thrives more in its balance of genuine tension and comedy than its biting satire of high-end dining culture. It does, however, leave the audience much to chew on about the codependent relationship between consumer and creator in all forms of art mediums, with high-end dining as the most literal example. It’s impossible not to empathise with Slowik when he asks his regular customers to tell him what their last meal was, his existential dread permeating out of the screen, to find his obsessive devotion to his craft has not been responded to in kind.
Whilst not overly successful as a satire (we may be in a cinematic era that is impossible to craft a successful satire), The Menu is highly enjoyable as a comedic thriller in the world of fine dining. Like any great restaurant or food spot, it’s important to appreciate a location on its own terms, and the film’s like The Menu are no different. Anchored by terrific genre performances by Fiennes and Taylor-Joy, you will be charmed by the biting and absurdist humour while you also find yourself on the edge of your seat.
The Menu is in theatres now.