4 out of 5 stars

Eat the rich seems to be a hot topic in cinema. Last month, Ruben Östlund subjected the obscenely wealth to a horrible time on a luxury yacht in Triangle of Sadness (2022), and soon Rian Johnson will trap them on a private Greek island with a killer in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). Here, Mark Mylod (TV’s Succession) takes on the elitism of the gourmet food world with The Menu. Sharp and witty, Seth Reiss and Will Tracy (head writers at The Onion) have written a screenplay that scathingly satirises a pretentious world where three smears and a blob count as an entrée.

An eclectic mix of the rich and privileged board a ferry for a quick trip to the fateful island. Their destination? Chef Julian Slowik’s (Ralph Fiennes) restaurant where his legendary multi-course dinners cost $1,250 a person. We first meet chef fanboy Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his less-than-impressed dated Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a cynic to her arrogant fool of a boyfriend. Both actors have an ease with each other and demonstrate a talent for natural-sounding banter.

Also on board is a washed-up actor (John Leguizamo, who based his role on Steven Seagal) and his exasperated assistant on the brink of quitting (Aimee Carrero); three obnoxious tech dudes on the company card (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr); a wealthy couple (Reed Birney, Judith Light); and a proudly scathing food critic (Janet McTeer) with her yielding editor (Paul Adelstein).

On the island we’re given a tour of the prison-like quarters the kitchen staff live in, the bay where the produce is harvested, and the barns where items are stored for the perfect amount of time. Then everyone takes a seat in the room where most of the film’s action takes place…

Ralph Fiennes’ chef is a chilling mix of Zen-like calm and tightly-wound anger. Looming over the open-plan kitchen in full view of his clientele, he runs the restaurant like a drill sergeant. Every course begins with a thunderous clap and a biographical story connected to the dish being served. Hong Chau is easily the film’s MVP as Chef Slowik’s right-hand woman, Elsa, who responds to every customer complaint with a delightful sharpness that anyone working in the customer service industry will be instantly jealous of.

The Menu will appeal to fans of culinary TV shows, where terms like essence, foam, and artisanal are supposed to mean something. The courses are served with increasingly amusing on-screen descriptions of the dishes. Of course, this isn’t really a film about food, it’s about the rich getting their delicious componence. The Menu is best served without any knowledge of the full plot, of course, so just know that Reiss and Tracy find joy in seeing the rich ludicrously pay for their actions.

Margot is our eyes and ears throughout this wild situation; the only ‘real person’ in a world of diners climbing over each other to spend the most money on the smallest of portions. It’s impossible to take your eyes off Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit) whenever she’s on-screen. The only reluctant interloper, a last-minute plus one for Tyler, she quickly works out that things aren’t quite what they seem. She won’t eat the food and play the game, calling out the hypocrisy of the chef’s ethics. Even once the narrative begins to sag, she never stops being utterly watchable.

The Menu doesn’t play its hand subtly. Sitting on the edge of horror and comedy, its jokes are sharp and the blows low, yet these pompously rich diners are never totally villainised. By choosing archetypes that are recognisable to audiences, the film doesn’t need to waste too much time on the backstory.

Slowik, thanks to a powerfully cold performance from Fiennes (The King’s Man), is both the villain and hero of this tale. While he hates what the elitist customers have done to his craft, their money has nevertheless given him everything and his fine dining menu is propping up the system he despises so much.

Perhaps with such a talented cast, these characters could be meatier and a little less surface-level. Audiences are asked to put a lot of their own experiences and opinions onto the cast, but it’s not difficult to dislike such archetypes. Light and Birney’s Anne and Richard are especially underwritten for the two immensely talented actors, as their non-descript rich couple feels the most non-descript of the dining room.

The Menu is smart to carefully unravel the plot, never giving its game away too soon. You know something is up, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to completely guess where this is heading. There are a few fake-outs along the way, leading one to believe you know where it’s going… but then the narrative zigs when it should have zagged. The smart writing which plays with genres will help keep the audience on their toes.

The Menu looks as good as Slowik’s food is supposed to taste. Peter Deming’s (Lost Highway) dreamy cinematography of the idyllic island makes it look incredibly appealing before events take a turn, but even when dinner starts to go array, the surroundings never mirror the horror. Ethan Tobman’s (Pam & Tommy) production design immediately sets the tone, the front of the house is a sleek luxury, but behind-the-scenes is a different story. Colin Stetson’s (Hereditary) score contrasts the sleek visuals with taunting strings, overlapping snippets of conversation weaved into the sound design.

Mylod (who also cut his teeth on Game of Thrones and the US Shameless remake) chooses interesting shots that keep the limited settings interesting because the film never once leaves the island and rarely even the restaurant. We see food being prepared using overhead shots, while the restaurant floor is viewed from a range of angles. The whole presentation of The Menu is purposefully discombobulating.

The Menu does start to overstay its welcome as Slowik’s full plan is fully revealed. Thankfully, the ending lands and there are enough shocks along the way to make this a delicious drama. Ultimately, The Menu isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. The digs are surface level, the characterisations somewhat heavy-handed, but the script is sharp and darkly funny enough to get away with it.

USA | 2022 | 107 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH SPANISH

frame rated divider - searchlight pictures

Cast & Crew

director: Mark Mylod.
writer: Seth Reiss & Will Tracy.
starring: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Reed Birney, Judith Light & John Leguizamo.