From Ali G Indahouse and Entourage to Succession, and most recently, The Menu, director Mark Mylod has found quite the pocket when it comes to poking fun at the elite 1% of the world. With this latest entry, Mylod extends his pointed finger at a rather large net of those on top. Nobody from food critics and bankers to self-proclaimed foodies and actors are safe. Most importantly, this film sets its delightfully wicked trap by using one of the few things that links all tax brackets together in some capacity: food. Taking place almost exclusively in Hawthorn, the restaurant in which Ralph Fiennes’ Chef Julian Slowik presides over, The Menu deftly balances comedy, social commentary, and raw thrills similar to how a tasting meal unfolds. What begins as a light, exciting foray into the world of fine dining devolves into something much more heavy; yet the film never veers too far into obscurity or ridiculousness. From the committed cast and immensely-talented crew, to the sheer fun of the simple yet effective premise, each scene of The Menu leaves the audience anxiously awaiting the next dish.
Margot and Tyler, played respectively by Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult, head to Hawthorn, an incredibly exclusive restaurant located on an island where one ferry runs a day. The night out begins as an Instagram influencer's dream as the couple and group they will be dining with receive a tour of the land prior to being seated. As the audience is treated to philosophical musings on food and its relationship to nature itself, we also learn of the accompanying guests, and staff, of Hawthorn. While it is clear each member of the dinner party has a distinct, yet sometimes mysterious, reason for being present, it is through Margot’s lens that most of this film can be viewed. In comically awkward fashion, we learn that Tyler asked Margot to join him for this meal in a very last-minute manner, and Taylor-Joy takes this opportunity to flex her almost mocking comedic chops. What begins as genuine curiosity for why Hoult’s character is so enamored with Hawthorn and the chef presiding there turns into a righteous form of cynicism as the courses begin arriving. Tyler actually has a very original and hyper-unique outlook on the culinary world, but he is also very clearly too caught up in his own “intellectual ideals” to see how terrible of a date he is being. From the outset, a line is divided between Tyler and Margot/the audience. We are all on the ferry together, with no escape, and more importantly, no idea of the meal we are going to be enjoying.
For Chef Slowik, the meal is more important than anything else; and it shows. This is a film that should not be seen on an empty stomach. With the food in the film being designed for presentation by world-renowned chef Dominique Crenn, Slowik’s creations hit the ground running visually. So when Fiennes enters the film and details his profound beliefs on the food he will be serving, it serves as the necessary hook to reel audiences into the world of Hawthorn. He implores his guests not to eat the food, but to genuinely taste and savor it. Unfortunately, when he is speaking to a food critic and her spineless editor, an older couple who are frequent guests, a down-on-his-luck movie star, his assistant, and three tech bros that seem plucked out of the deepest antagonistic caves of Silicon Valley, it falls on deaf ears. The only people who seem to actually listen to the chef are Tyler, in a reverential, border-line crush manner, and Margot, who more than anything, takes what he is saying with a grain of salt. The audience should be acutely honed in as well due to how keenly Fiennes attacks this role. It’s the perfect reminder of just how well he can excel in a film that requires a flair of the dramatic, hidden within comedy; hearing the chef detail one particularly memorable taco night from childhood should be more than enough to sell audiences on his performance. And when he is paired up against Margot in a sheer battle of wills, the film only thrives because of it; two wonderful actors striving to come out on top in any particular scene.
When asked what it was like to work with Fiennes so directly, Taylor-Joy described the experience as “having a very generous dance partner.” And while many food puns could be made to describe the delicate tonal balance The Menu toys with throughout its brisk runtime, perhaps describing it as a dance is equally fitting. At no point does Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s script shy away from the venom it aims to spew, yet it forever remains graceful. As Mylod explained in a press conference for the film, these guests are culpable long before they ever sit down for the meal at Hawthorn. Thanks to the film mainly being shot chronologically, there is a specific turning point where the tonal shift is felt by the entire cast, and thus, the performances are able to move into new grounds effortlessly. If both dance and the culinary arts have a focus on improvisation, The Menu loosens its apron and chef jacket to remain playful. It’s a film that piques curiosity as easily as reading a menu will make one hungry. And even after the events of the film transpire and the credits begin to roll, it’s impossible to blame any audience member for wanting to book an immediate reservation at Hawthorn; if only to spend more time in the wonderfully fun world of this film and exclusive dining.
Searchlight Pictures will release The Menu in theaters on November 18, 2022.