Perhaps I’ll now have second thoughts about telling the waiters it’s my friend’s birthday next time we go to Chili’s. After The Menu, I’ll pass on any fine dining and stick to my Chipotle quesadillas and pizza routine. The new dark comedy from Mark Mylod is a clever dark comedy that is layered with clever commentary about the art industry and features an all-star cast.
A group of couples all go on a tasty journey through the best of the five senses: taste. The affluent couples all go to the Hawthorne; a fine-dining establishment run by Head Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). But throughout the course of the night (pun intended), things take a chaotic turn and the restaurant is not quite what it seems and is shown to be layered with twisted secrets.
Included in this group are food critic, Lillian (Janet McTeer) and her beta-male date Ted (Paul Adelstein); three “Wolves of Wall Street,” Soren (Arturo Castro), Dave (Mark St. Cyr) and Bryce (Rob Yang); regulars at the restaurant Anne (Judith Light) and Richard (Reed Birney); and a movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero).
But the most important couple is Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). The former is a wannabe foodie; a sponge for information that is gawky as can be in the presence of Chef Slowik. All he wants in life is the validation of the chef and spends the evening man-splaining every little thing to Margot (no wonder no girl wanted to go to prom with him!).
“It doesn’t matter if he [Chef Slowik] likes you or not,” says Margot to Tyler when the night was still seemingly normal. Based on Tyler’s actions, it’s safe to say he doesn’t believe that.
But even before that, the lavish evening gets off to a rough start when we learn that Tyler had made the reservation with another girl as his guest (rookie mistake). Margot’s relatively forgiving at first, but as the night progresses, she grows more tired of Tyler, his actions and the whole restaurant.
What’s most brilliant about The Menu are the archetypes writers Seth Reiss (The New Yorker: Shorts and Murmurs) and Will Tracy (Succession) have laid out. Where else to start but the food critic? McTeer and Adelstein play the pretentious food critics, who likely enjoy analyzing the age of wine (no shade if you do enjoy this) for hours on end. You’ll quickly notice that Ted has very little to say on his end and uses big words to try and speak on Lillian’s level. Lillian, on the other hand, is a wordsmith who can go on about the “melodies” Chef Slowik creates through his flavors. We also learn that she’s closed a number of restaurants with the words she strings together; showing the power of people like myself writing a review of the film. McTeer is simply amazing in this role and is equally funny with her snobby remarks as she is obnoxious.
The three “Wolves of Wall Street” (as I call them) are another great archetype mixed into the film. The trio is made up of a group of cocky young men working in the financial industry that think they’re hotshots and can buy anything with money. As we see in many films where the rich are thrust into life-or-death situations — hello, Triangle of Sadness — that generally doesn’t work. St. Cyr really steals the show out of these three with some subtle humor that is hilarious (look for him in the background when Chef Slowik quotes a certain political figure).
But this is Fiennes and Taylor-Joy’s film, and they have their cake and eat it too. Their dynamic is something to behold including their first encounter in the restroom and the number of times Chef Slowik asks Margot the biggest question anyone can be asked: “Who are you?” There’s something so inherently creepy about Fiennes’ performance. Perhaps it’s the blank stare behind his expressions that are mixed with glimmers of a smile that are enough to make you lose your appetite. There’s an uneasy complexity about Chef Slowik that Fiennes nails to a tee.
One other standout that isn’t a part of the affluent is Hong Chau as Elsa, Chef Slowik’s second-in-command. Right on the heels of her heartbreaking and genuine performance in The Whale, Chau once again kills it with this hammed-up role. Elsa is very much a straight-arrow in that she carries out the rules of the restaurant without any questions asked. It’s also very clear that she worked hard to get to her position, so you can imagine the look on her face when Chef Slowik takes any interest in another character.
Luckily, as someone who feared the big “twist” of The Menu would be that it’s a movie about cannibalism, I’m overjoyed to report that isn’t that at all. I won’t spoil exactly what the sinister secrets of this establishment are, but to anyone with a weak stomach fearing what they are about to see, you’ll be fine. The fear only arises out of having seen Fresh — which was fine outside of introducing the general public to Daisy Edgar-Jones — and Bones and All — which was too much for me given that the majority of the packed-out theater at the NYFF was eating during the film. Those two films are from this year alone and beg the question of how many films about that subject matter we need in a year.
If anything, The Menu is like a hardcore Chef (another film featuring Leguizamo) in that it really tackles those like myself who are writing about the film. Chef Slowik is obsessed with the opinions of critics and restaurant-goers alike, and it’s a great metaphor for the role of artists and critics. I won’t spoil the reasons that certain characters are there, but it quickly becomes very clear what each person represents. Tyler is a “fanboy,” or more fittingly a “stan” of Chef Slowik, and is an example of fandom that goes just a bit too far.
Leguizamo as the washed-up movie star is perhaps the funniest metaphor in the film. Leguizamo himself is far from washed-up, but he portrays the type of Hollywood star who is beginning to face the music. Just look at the overjoyed “told you people remember me” he delivers to his assistant when one of the Wall Street kids asks him about one of his movies or the way in which he attempts to use his star power later in the film when in peril. And he’s at the restaurant in a last-ditch effort to try and land some reality food show akin to Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives but is so clearly out of his element. He’s a tragic figure, in all honesty, and a stark reminder that fame, nor money, can save you.
That’s what leaves us with Margot; the seeming escort from a small town in Idaho (I think?). A small-town girl that’s found the right connections. Taylor-Joy has quickly risen up the ranks for me and is one of my favorite actresses to watch. She’s just so good regardless of the era her film takes place in; just look at Emma., The Witch, The Northman, Last Night in Soho and even Split. Margot’s got more to her than she lets on, and her ending, while silly, is the perfect cherry on top to end the film on.
On top of the brilliant writing, Peter Deming’s cinematography sticks out in just the right ways. Given that the film mostly takes place inside the restaurant, you may find it difficult to believe that the camera could do anything unique. Deming finds a way to make the small space feel big with his movement during scenes of dialogue; intensifying each word uttered out of the character’s mouths. I also have grown very fond of Colin Stetson’s score. It’s very subtle and is like the perfect side to a dish (like fries to steak, for me) but is also beautifully melancholic when need be (listen out for his score in the cheeseburger scene).
And the presentation of the film is just top-notch. Whether it was editor Christopher Tellefsen making these calls or Mylod, the segues between each course are amazing. The first few are very oceanic and the intensity picks up with each course much like the film itself. Paired with the “money shots” — if you’ve seen any Food Network show, you’ll know what I’m talking about — are little blurbs about the dish. They usually just give an eloquent description of the ingredients in the dish, but there are other times when the segue is used to throw in a comedic joke that lands.
I made it my mission to avoid using any words such as “decadent” or any sort of food puns but I can no longer resist. Simply put, The Menu is delicious. It’s hard not to get drawn into the film and observe this wacky restaurant. From top-notch performances, the shots of delicious food and the message all go a long way in making The Menu work like a full-course meal.
The Menu had its world premiere at TIFF on September 10 and will be released in theaters on November 18.