From amuse-bouche to perhaps the most epic dessert scene ever captured on film, Mark Mylod’s The Menu delivers a feast that increases in both heat and flavor as the film descends into chaos. Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s script is immensely flavourful in its comedy as well as in its themes. It’s both a savory ode to the culinary world and the art of cooking and a spicy takedown of those who disrespect service workers. The film’s titular menu is crafted like a play. Painstakingly planned by its chef playwright and whose dinner guests have been selected just as carefully. The guests are the chef’s ingredients, and the audience is in for a culinary treat.
“Tonight will be madness,” Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) foreshadows. He and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), along with wealthy corpos, food critics, and celebrities receive an invitation to experience the fictional Hawthorn Island restaurant, led by Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The palette of these rich foodies is about indulging in what is for many a once in a lifetime experience. Slowik is the best of the best, and he doesn’t serve just anyone. He lives and breathes his work, as do his staff. The island is like an army base. The staff sleep together in barracks and traditional training drills are replaced with fishing, harvesting, fermenting, and slaughtering everything they serve. Slowik is the general of this kitchen, and with a forceful clap, his staff position at attention. The chef’s precious menu has been carefully planned from garnish to plating, and who would attend tonight’s meal has been hand-picked by him. But Margot is an unexpected change. She wasn’t originally Tyler’s date and not an item on Slowik’s menu. This threatens to derail the chef’s entire night.
Just like this year’s Triangle of Sadness, The Menu is another addition to the subgenre of film that’s a takedown of the wealthy, calling out the rich on their corruption, lies, and destructive influence. It’s best to keep the plot of The Menu at a surface-level description, but it can be safely said that it’s delectably entertaining, shocking and hilarious. It has a subtle yet electrifying score and an eye-catching modern meets Scandinavian production design. It’s a feast that surpasses the food served.
It also boasts a phenomenal cast. Fiennes is devilishly imposing as Slowik with a glare as sharp as his kitchen knives. We know from The Great that Hoult knows how to spin every emotion into comedy and he continues to do that here as the foodie fanboy hanging on Slowik’s every word. The moments that get the most laughs from the audience are thanks to Hong Chau as Elsa, Slowik’s right hand. Presenting herself as a hardened sergeant, she delivers the script’s clever jokes with a seriousness that makes every scene she’s in funnier than the last. It’s difficult to steal the show from her, but Taylor-Joy comes close. She’s the voice for a middle-class audience that wouldn’t even be allowed onto Hawthorn Island. Margot quickly sees through Slowik and isn’t afraid to call out how ridiculous the fascination with him and his food is. Taylor-Joy’s eyes are full of intensity that pairs with Fiennes’s own pointed ones. Like two swords slamming into each other’s blades, the chef and the outsider going head to head is the real dessert at the end of the numerous courses.
We don’t learn a great deal about the characters, but the most important thing is knowing why Slowik has chosen them to be on his guest list. They are the takers of the service industry’s givers. Those whose pleasure is provided through the abuse of others. As Slowik explains, service workers give so much of themselves to please people that they’ll never meet and that creates a mess in their lives. They become almost like a robot, a shell of a person because they go years without being treated as a human who deserves respect. The rich gorge themselves on the blood, sweat, and tears of those they deem below them and it’s only right for people like Slowik to want to free themselves. It’s only fair that the wealthy’s fears, displeasure, and disgust are made fun of. Or, in other words, laid out to be cut open at the audience’s indulgence.