Clearly we’re living in a zeitgeist moment where so many filmmakers have taken swipes at the 1% with titles such as Triangle Of Sadness, The White Lotus, Succession, and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, to name a few, hellbent on exposing the class divide. Enter The Menu into the fray from director Mark Mylod (Succession, Game Of Thrones) and writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, and to risk the groan-inducing puns likely to accompany this film wherever it goes, the fantastic ingredients don’t end up making for a satisfying meal. In fact, I think it’s one of the worst films of 2022.
How could this have gone so wrong? We have a terrific filmmaker in Mylod, a stellar cast, sleek visuals, and a restaurant culture worth satirizing, yet the whole thing fell completely flat for me [insert lame soufflé joke here]. A group of twelve wealthy patrons have plunked down $1,250 each for a meal at the exclusive Hawthorne restaurant, located on an island and presided over by celebrated chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). He and his large, militarily precise staff prepare molecular gastronomic courses from their open kitchen for the lucky few who can score a seat at the table. They include an influential restaurant critic and her editor (Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein), a couple who have dined there many times (Judith Light and Reed Birney), an actor and his assistant (John Leguizamo and Aimee Carrero), a trio of obnoxious tech bros (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, and Rob Yang), and a mysterious elderly woman sitting alone and getting hammered (Rebecca Koon). Finally, we have our ostensible protagonists Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a foodie who overdoes it on the “mouth feel” of it all, and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a last minute replacement for Tyler’s original plus one.
The film does an excellent job of breezily setting up its characters, with Taylor-Joy in particular relishing her role as the audience surrogate who can barely stomach the level of pretension on display. Hong Chau also commands immediate attention as Elsa, a drill sergeant of a chef who leads our group through the premises. Chau’s knack for turning exposition dumps into crackling entertainment filled me with the hope that, again, pardon the bad pun, a five star film laid ahead.
With a jump-scare worthy clap of hands, Fiennes’ Slowik, who gives an excellently coiled performance, welcomes his guests and implores his diners to not eat, but to taste his food. A second course of bread but without the actual bread gets an amusing eye-roll out of Taylor-Joy. Slowik will tell ridiculous stories about each dish, preceded each time by that annoying hand clap. As the evening progresses, we soon realize all is not as it seems, with blood, violence, murder, and other horrors on the horizon.
Sounds like a good thriller at its core, no? In theory, yes, but with satires such as this, the tone needs perfect calibration for it to work. Unfortunately, I didn’t believe anything these characters said or did. As danger escalates, we see a couple of stabs at revulsion and protest, but not nearly enough when faced with carnage. I know the filmmakers have aimed to show the lengths people go to in order to justify keeping their heads in the sand, but this film favors taking cheap shots instead of exploring actual human behavior. How Slowik’s blindly obedient staff react to the events of the film, left me particularly baffled. I know the film exists in a milieu of heightened realism, but despite Taylor-Joy’s valiant efforts to act as our eyes and ears, we know so little about her, thus we have nothing to latch onto to get us through this supremely silly film. By the time we get to the last act, the stupid costumes and concept produce a figurative and literal flameout. It puts the camp into campfire, which feels like the final nail in the coffin of this film connecting on a truly emotional level.
On the surface, the twists and turns of the story pack some punch. It’s fast and furious, and Mylod keeps things moving at breakneck pace throughout. Peter Deming’s cinematography and Ethan Tubman’s production design prove beautifully immersive, credibly presenting the rarified air of this world. Characters acting real isn’t required in satire. Look at Dr. Strangelove, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and the recent Triangle Of Sadness as examples of successfully heightened reality. Despite some cartoonish performances in all of these films, the tone and subtle elements of the screenplays proved key in getting us through some of the more outrageous plot points. The Menu, by contrast, takes a rich premise and turns it into dumb gags and throws its characters around a chess board in service of its plot instead of letting us believe any of their motivations. I’m sending this one back, and that’s my final terrible Dad joke.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
The Menu opens in US theaters on November 18th, 2022.