Synopsis: Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) are a young couple who have managed to score an exclusive seating at Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant located on a private island, run by eccentric head chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Once at Hawthorne, Margot begins to realise that all is not as it seems. Firstly, the guests all appear to be connected to Slowik in some way, from faded movie star George Diaz (John Leguizamo) to food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer). Furthermore, the staff, led by maitre d’ Elsa (Hong Chau) all seem a little too devoted to their domineering boss. And, oh yes, no one is allowed to leave the restaurant until every course has been served …
1. Based off a screenplay from the Black List, (1) The Menu is elegantly-plated and served with panache, but fails to adequately satisfy the palate. This is largely a problem with the recipe, as no matter how high-quality the ingredients are, the overall taste of the dish is left wanting, with fancy techniques and rich sauces unable to mask the fact that the base is somewhat bland and unseasoned. While it attempts to address some of the core issues of the day, it does so in a manner that is half-baked and undercooked, never arriving at the complexity of flavour that it aims for. At bare minimum, it is a consistently entertaining experience, which will allow diners to leave relatively pleased, even if their hunger is not fully satiated. Food metaphor food metaphor food metaphor.
2. In watching The Menu, I found it difficult to ignore the looming presence of Mark Mylod’s other savagely satirical dissection of one percenters, the HBO television series Succession, where he serves as executive producer and has directed about 50% of its episodes. This is not a similarity based on style, as The Menu is filmed in what one might call the ‘traditional’ prestige picture style, with fussily staged blocking and precise camera movements, while Succession has become known for its jittery, handheld, docu-realistic camerawork. It speaks well of Mylod’s talents that he can shift between two wildly disparate lanes without missing a beat, but while the stylistic aspects may differ, there is certainly a shared tone and attitude between the two – a balance of wry observational humour and absurdist satire that rapidly escalates in incongruity with each passing moment. However, this is not a comparison that puts The Menu in the best light, not only because Succession is undoubtedly the best show on television, but also because it reveals the hollowness beneath The Menu‘s perfectly primped exterior. Succession works because of two things – (i) it never loses sight of its characters’ humanity and avoids turning them into simple caricatures, and (ii) it delves deeply into the issues of class and wealth that are its main focus. In a word, Succession thrives on complexity. Unfortunately, The Menu is befuddling in how simplistic it is on both the character and thematic front.
3. Consider, for example, the tech bro characters in The Menu. They start as obnoxious shallow assholes and as the movie goes on, we discover that … they are obnoxious shallow assholes. Similarly, Janet McTeer’s snobby, pretentious food critic is revealed to actually be … snobby and pretentious. There is next to no depth whatsoever in characterisation, with only Ralph Fiennes’s Slowik being provided any kind of hidden layers. Don’t misunderstand my Succession comparison – of course I’m aware that a 30 episode HBO series can delve far more deeply into character than a 100 minute movie, but the major issue here is how there is completely no appearance-reality dichotomy whatsoever. Even if the main point of the film is that all these rich assholes are extremely unpleasant people, what good does it serve to have them start out that way? Maybe not all the supporting characters could be three-dimensional given the movie’s time constraints, but surely they could at least be two-dimensional? This superficiality extends to the thematic insight of the film, which really has nothing more to say beyond (semi-literally) ‘eat the rich’. The worst part? It can’t even keep straight who the rich are supposed to be! Are tech-bros, food critics and faded Hollywood stars really the one percent? This is best exemplified the moment where the Hollywood star’s assistant/lover (Aimee Carrero) pleads to be let go on the basis that she is simply a low-level grunt worker in the movie industry, only for Slowik to put her in her place by asking where she studied (Brown) and if she took out student loans (no). Is it a decent gag? Hell yeah, especially with Fiennes’s sneer and Mylod’s quick editing. Does it make any sense? Not really, because there is an ocean of difference between ‘wealthy enough to afford an Ivy League education without loans’ to ‘Elon Musk’. If I’m being generous, this might be a hint that Slowik’s revenge has reached the point of emotionally lashing out, with no sense of logic or rationality as to who deserves to be punished, but I’m not quite sure the film ever supports that reading. All of this leads to a really simplistic world – anyone who isn’t a literal blue-collar worker is therefore a member of the rich elite, who are all scummy and evil and deserve to die. (2)
4. This oversimplification is a real pity, especially considering that the film ably proves in other areas that it is capable of sharp and venomous satire. In particular, its evisceration of fine dining and the culture that surrounds it is nothing short of hilarious. The best part of the film by far is its first act, where it expertly creates tension by balancing the absurdity of Slowik’s menu with the countervailing sense that, well, real fine dining restaurants serve ‘food’ that is precisely this in(s)ane! This is also where the film lands its finest jabs against the cult of the celebrity chef, largely through Nicholas Hoult’s Slowik worshipping groupie and the militaristic devotion of the staff at Hawthorne. The dishes themselves are also absolutely hilarious in this first act, from an amuse-bouche largely consisting of inedible rocks to a bread course that doesn’t actually have bread in it. This is also helped by the presentation of the dishes, using Chef’s Table style photography (done by second-unit director and actual Chef’s Table showrunner David Gelb) and highfalutin language to describe the ridiculous ingredients. When coupled together with Fiennes’ increasingly ridiculous monologues introducing each dish, this all adds to the film’s punchiest and sharpest section, which unfortunately the film eventually abandons for the move obvious ‘boo rich people’ stuff I mentioned in paragraph 3.
5. Nonetheless, while the film eventually loses steam as a satire, it never stops providing the surface pleasure of entertainment. Part of this, as mentioned, comes from Mylod’s undoubted directorial ability. It’s difficult to make a film shot almost entirely in a small space captivating, but Mylod’s unerring sense of composition and blocking ensure that The Menu remains spatially interesting throughout its runtime. He also has a strong understanding of comedy as well and how to stage a shot for maximum laughs – take a disembodied hand entering the frame to provide a measly ‘reward’ for avoiding capture in one of Slowik’s games, or the numerous wide shots of crowds standing still to draw contrasting attention to some poor sap trying to run or fidget. This is quite the lost art in Hollywood comedies, which have devolved into just point-and-shoot affairs while actors do improv. The acting is also largely strong, with Ralph Fiennes as a clear standout, pitching his Slowik somewhere between the smooth-talking charmers of his romantic comedies and the monsters of Amon Göth/Lord Voldemort. Anya Taylor-Joy is also very good in her leading role, creating an appealing heroine imbued with grit and wit that the audience can easily root for. The supporting cast largely performs well, with Nicholas Hoult standing apart from the pack with a truly excellent comedic turn as Tyler, whose snivelling support for Slowik hides a much darker side. Other than Hoult, Hong Chau is also superbly sinister as a militant maitre d’, with every syllable she speaks laced with a quite delicious venom.
6. All in all, The Menu is an entertaining diversion, well-made and well-acted, with some sharp savaging of the cult that has sprung up around fine dining. It is disappointing, however, that it never quite becomes the excellent film that the talent involved seems to promise. I chalk this up largely to a weak screenplay that feels a little too smugly satisfied with its simplistic ‘eat the rich’ sloganeering, and never goes far enough to deepen either its themes or its characters. Had the film continued with the tension of its excellent first act, keeping the audience on tenterhooks on whether Slowik’s absurd dishes were a prelude to something more sinister or just part of the ever growing insanity of fine dining culture, it might have worked out a lot better. (3) As it stands however, The Menu is sadly too similar to its namesake – impressive on the surface and pretty to look at, but never quite substantial enough to satisfy.
- An annual survey of Hollywood executives to shortlist the most popular unproduced screenplays being shopped around the motion picture industry.
- To circle back to Succession, one of its finest moments is when the members of the billionaire Roy family mock Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) for having to suck up to his rich grandfather just because of a $5 million dollar inheritance, which they say would make him the world’s ‘poorest rich person’ – as it would not be enough money to stop working for a living. Now that is a narrative that understands the differences between the merely-rich and the super-rich. Or, to quote Chris Rock – Shaq is rich. The guy who signs Shaq’s cheques is wealthy.
- If you’re looking for this kind of film, may I recommend Midsommar?