Even for many self-proclaimed “foodies,” spending a lot of money on a buffet with eight bite-sized meals is ridiculous. Spending hundreds of dollars on a dime-sized slice of deconstructed and deglazed huckleberry foam (I’m not sure if this is a thing, I just made it up) at a time when infant formula is in short supply? On principle, let us say please.
However, where do you draw the line between yourself and the higher echelons of the bourgeoisie in a capitalistic society predicated on inequality, when everyone appears to have advantages and possessions that others do not? And isn’t a little splurge, perhaps for a once-in-a-blue-moon special event, harmless enough?
In Mark Mylod’s gloriously light The Menu, a dark eat-the-rich comedy-thriller that goes down more like a gourmet bistro burger with a side of crisp Pommes Frites than an elaborate tasting menu of once-in-a-lifetime tastes, no one needs to reflect on such humanitarian and leftist issues. After all, these are folks who spent over a thousand dollars (presumably before wine pairings) on an evening at star chef Slowik’s (an almost godlike Ralph Fiennes) restaurant Hawthorne, and not necessary for a particular occasion.
Except for one (including the staff), it should be specified. Margot (a searchingly intriguing Anya Taylor-Joy) appears to be the no-nonsense kind who shouts bullshit when she sees it when she arrives on a private island with Nicholas Hoult’s abrasive Tyler. She, a no-nonsense normie, has undoubtedly not paid for the lunch herself. After being questioned through the rigorous check-in procedure, Margot enters the brilliantly minimalist dining hall (erected with terrifying perfection by production designer Ethan Tobman) and dismisses the luxury of dining at Hawthorne with, “It’s your money,” to a humiliated Tyler. So what if she’s a last-minute replacement for Tyler’s confirmed dinner date at Hawthorne? She may as well take advantage of this gastronomic adventure and live a little.
However, Margot is surrounded by irritating one-percenters, celebrities, mafia types, a difficult-to-impress cuisine critic, and employees who can’t stop questioning Margot’s surprise appearance. Margot’s date is chastised for photographing the given plates—against it’s the rules, you see. And each meal is preceded by a pre-lecture on the locally farmed and cultivated foods, as well as the emotional past events that influenced the tastes. These early scenes are genuinely funny and well-observed about the upper-hysterical crust’s rituals, so clueless about the bounds of their licenses that they can’t even smell Elsa’s (a fantastically icy Hong Chau) hostility as tensions in the dining room rise with twists that spill out, course by ridiculous course.
Let’s just say that once the script—tightly but frothily penned Seth Reiss and Will Tracy—spills some blood on the kitchen floor, it’s the rich that get served up (in various ways) in The Menu, once the script—tightly but frothily penned Seth Reiss and Will Tracy—spills some blood on the kitchen floor.
In the end, we have a jaded chef, formerly enthralled by both basic and daring meals, but now terribly bored and resentful, his art hijacked by people wealthy enough to purchase it but not sensitive enough to properly enjoy it.
Much of the credit belongs to Peter Deming’s ultra-chic photography, which takes full use of the film’s one-location setting, cranking up the class tension through studious framing choices under Mylod’s direction. Despite the simple nature of The Menu, the screenplay finds ingenious ways to raise the tension. Slowik orders the visitors to disperse to the island’s grounds like headless chickens at one point.
At another, Margot seeks to find a way out of this chaos, to which she increasingly does not belong as someone who has earned the resourceful, problem-solving head on her shoulders for quite some time. We also encounter a law enforcement interloper briefly as part of a well-executed sequence in which Reiss and Tracy generate a funny feeling of irritation.
It’s tempting to compare The Menu‘s delightful fragrances to those of Knives Out or Triangle Of Sadness, two contemporary films that brilliantly mock the disconnected and inept upper class. But don’t be shocked if The Menu’s aftertaste seems more like Ratatouille’s warm and fuzzy hug. Mylod’s stew, like that Pixar delicacy, reserves its most delectable serving until last. That’s why it’s so enthralling.