The Menu opens with a hurried, self-consciously quippy conversation that frankly had me a little worried. It is the sort of dialogue that has become commonplace in American film and television for decades and can perhaps be traced back to the work of David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino. While they excelled at making these conversations somehow sound believable, this style has spawned infinite imitations that mostly ring false and just hit the ear wrong. It’s unmistakable when you hear it; dialogue that is written in a Gilmore Girls way that humans rarely speak and delivered at such a snappy pace that you can almost see the actors struggling to keep up. Watching our protagonist Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her date Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) have a lightning round of a conversation while preparing to board a boat, I was anticipating an annoying night at the movies.
Fortunately, The Menu gives you so much to chew on (hah hah) in so little time that speed almost becomes its greatest asset. In a time where cinema is infected with a desire to overstuff almost every film to 150-minute length, this is one of the breeziest filmgoing experiences of the year. Once the boat arrives to its destination, the movie charges ahead and never looks back. The script sort of settles into itself loses most of the overdone snappiness from the introduction and becomes an involving and surprising story of the worst dinner imaginable.
Tyler is a pretentious foodie who has invited Margot, as a last minute replacement, to a secluded island which houses Hawthorne, an über exclusive and expensive restaurant that provides an ultimate artistic dining experience to a select few customers at a hefty price. Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes, wonderfully bizarre) painstakingly prepares the multiple-course menu which is purported to have an overarching theme that makes itself clear at the end of the meal. Margot is no foodie herself, but she goes along with the pomp and circumstance because the sycophantic Tyler is obsessed with Slowik and seeks every opportunity to impress the reserved chef with his reverence and unique food knowledge. We have no clue why the seemingly decent Margot would be involved with a pompous jerk like Tyler, but clarifying details about the nature of their relationship are revealed as the night moves forward.
Some of the other guests at Hawthorne include Reed Birney and Judith Light as an older couple in a long marriage that possibly should’ve ended long ago due to his possible impropriety. John Leguizamo is on hand as a hacky movie star with his assistant (Aimee Carrero), who is desperately trying to put in her two weeks notice which keeps falling on deaf ears. We are reminded yet again of the brilliance of film and stage actress Janet McTeer who simply doesn’t make enough movies. She hilariously steals the show here as a cutthroat food critic whose one bad review can close a restaurant before it even gets off the ground, and when dinner takes a turn for the worse, she and her editor (Paul Adelstein) are the last ones to accept reality because, of course, nothing this bad would ever happen to them.
When the guests arrive at the island, they are led on a brief tour by the dutiful and no-nonsense Elsa (Hong Chau, 2022’s juggernaut) before arriving at the restaurant for the evening to begin. Course by course, the situation takes more of a turn for the nefarious until, ultimately, it becomes clear that leaving Hawthorne will be a matter of life and death for these patrons. Part of the movie’s fun is the surprises that escalate along the way, which I wouldn’t dare spoil for you. Fiennes is hilarious and brilliant in the way his controlled veneer almost never slips away, even when things become truly outrageous. Taylor-Joy proves to be a plucky heroine who we enjoy rooting for, while Hoult does a fantastic job as playing someone you would never want to have to be around ever because your eyes can only roll so far back in your head.
Despite the outrageous black comedy of The Menu, director Mark Mylod is also making a more serious comment on the possible toxicity of wealth and privilege. I imagine this aspect will play better for viewers who have not, like me, just recently seen Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness. In my view, that is a stronger film that makes similar points in a more cogent way, but that isn’t a failing of The Menu at all. The approaches are just slightly different with The Menu presenting as more of a straightforward black comedy with several amusing moments and jokes along the way mixed in with the doom and gloom. If you simply just look at the final shots of both films, that pretty much sums up the separate attitudes Mylod and Östlund take to similar types of material.
After a rocky start, The Menu pleasantly caught me by surprise. If you go in absolutely cold, you will definitely be shocked by some of the developments that take place. The cast works well together as an ensemble attempting to band together to escape a horrific situation. Even with some extremely dark moments, Mylod balances it well by having moments of levity that are truly amusing and effective. In a sea of overlong films, this is a fast-paced, snappy 107-minute ride that runs the audience through the ringer in a good way. It’s a twisted and fun change of pace from the usual end-of-year holiday fare at the movies.