The restaurant world has changed immensely in the past decade. While there have always been celebrity chefs, social media has boosted seemingly unknown talents to superstardom. Creating foods that go viral on TikTok became as important as a good meal. The experiential platform of restaurants has become a sought-after commodity. What was once a mystery is now fully exposed to the “foodie” enthusiast in us all. In Mark Mylod‘s The Menu, the restaurant world comes to blows with those who have made the consumption of food their hobby. However, wrapped into the screenplay (from Seth Reiss & Will Tracy) are class dynamics, the role of the service industry, and questions about high art. The delectable storytelling helps The Menu become one of the most entertaining films of 2022, one that is sure to only grow with repeat viewings.
New couple Margo (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) get ready for an exclusive dining experience. However, when they arrive at the island to enjoy their meal, it appears there is more at play. Their fellow diners include a famed food critic (Janet McTeer), a movie star (John Leguizamo), finance bros (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, & Mark St. Cyr), and a wealthy couple (Reed Birney & Judith Light). Yet each has ties to Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) and his staff (Hong Chau, Christina Brucato, and more). As the night unfolds, Margo finds herself in a tête-à-tête with Slowik over her arrival.
Mylod does not waste time in his tight film, which clocks in under two hours. Instead, he begins threading concepts into the audience’s mind from the word go. The ways characters react to one another, their styles, and their general contempt for human interaction tell us more about them in ten minutes than many films ever reveal. While there are movie and television stars throughout the ensemble, Mylod ensures that we learn as much about each guest as quickly as possible, allowing the true ensemble to shine.
Wisely, the ways Mylod constructs The Menu help it avoid the pitfalls of many large ensemble films. Mylod utilizes a roaming camera to help engrain us into the world, and the soundscape reflects that. The camera may begin at one table before slowly pushing in on another. In the process, we catch snippets of dialogue to reveal information about the characters that feels extraneous at first. While the filmmaking team may wish you to focus on a certain pairing, these tidbits become essential in highlighting the eccentricities of the characters. This adds texture to the performances and the film as a whole. In many ways, The Menu pulls tricks from Hitchock’s Rope to help us live in this meal.
The screenplay from Reiss & Tracy certainly looks to tackle inequality, but its hyper specificity also showcases its familiarity with the world. Running jokes and setups are sprung throughout the film at seemingly random intervals. It allows The Menu to payoff lines an hour later into the story. At other points, the line strikes at the heart of an individual character rather than the group as a whole. It’s an impressive tapestry that must be in place in order to sell the film as a whole.
At the same time, it’s easier for the audience to buy into a story when a cast plays off each other. The chemistry strewn throughout the cast of The Menu makes for one of the best ensembles of the year. Nearly every character gets to take center stage at one point or another. Yet there’s an incredible grace in the sharing across actors, who willingly take a backseat for others at a moment’s notice. The performances complement the screenplay so miraculously that you might think the film was written after it had already been cast.
The highlight performance comes from Fiennes, who dominates the screen no matter how he enters the frame. He looms over the first twenty minutes of the film, and then once he appears, he never really goes away. It’s the right blend of menace, frustration, and anger that one hopes to see out of Fiennes. He’s one of the most unique figures in the industry, and few can unnerve an audience with a simple look.
Taylor-Joy gets plenty of standout moments, but one would not be mistaken that she’s slightly miscast. However, that seems to be the point. While she nails the range of the character, her confidence and whipsmart demeanor make her almost too good to get caught up in a story like The Menu. Still, there’s a level of hubris that she carries herself with, which in turn makes her believe she’s invulnerable. It’s brilliant to make an actress like Taylor-Joy carry herself in a role as twitchy as Margo.
The one aspect that hurts The Menu is the abundance of ideas it throws at the audience. Despite having so many high-minded concepts floating through the film, not every idea is explored fully. This makes for some comedy, including a bit between Fiennes and Leguizamo, but also frames Chef Slowik as something of a loon. It’s a nitpick and one of the only aspects that prevent it from masterpiece status.
The Menu will surprise some audiences with its silly and violent tendencies. However, it never sways too far to one side or the other. It simply paves its own path through the middle of high society, throwing grenades at every one in every direction. It’s release just before Thanksgiving is quite funny in its own right, but hopefully, you do not have a turkey day quite so rich with resentment.