"The Menu" a cruelly witty, excellently cast, deliciously mean dish

The Menu (2022)

That poor 1% just can’t catch a break lately, what with Ruben Östlund’s playfully scathing class indictment “Triangle of Sadness” sticking it to the oyster-eating rich on a yacht with a symphony of sea sickness. From the amuse-bouche to the final course, director Mark Mylod’s “The Menu” sharpens its knives and skewers varying types of very specific restaurant customers, all of them wealthy and privileged (except one). Director Mylod (2011’s “What’s Your Number?”) and writers Seth Reiss & Will Tracy (former head writers for The Onion) take no prisoners in their eat-the-rich approach, throwing the viewer alongside the characters in a pot of boiling water. As a deliciously mean social satire that inches closer and closer into horror, “The Menu” works a treat. 

It’s almost set up like an Agatha Christie mystery with Mike White-style observational humor, as an eclectic group of strangers is invited to an isolated location. The island of Hawthorne awaits these people for an exclusive meal priced at $1250 per head by the high-profile Chef Julian Slowik, drolly played with a startling calm and control by Ralph Fiennes. Self-proclaimed culinary connoisseur Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) has brought along a date, Margot (the ever-mesmerizing Anya Taylor-Joy), a skeptical smoker with a lesser palate. She’s less than impressed, but along for the ride anyway. Also invited are a trio of finance bros (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr); a snobby food critic (Janet McTeer) and her haughty yes-man editor (Paul Adelstein); a washed-up movie star (John Leguizamo) and his annoyed assistant (Aimee Carrero); and an older man and his wife (Reed Birney and Judith Light) who have dined on Hawthorne before. They’re welcomed by the chef’s no-time-for-bullshit maître d’ Elsa (a chilling, brilliantly dead-eyed Hong Chau), who gives the group a lay of the land and then takes them to their individual tables in a steely, sterile restaurant open to the kitchen. With a clap of his hands, the guests are greeted by the intensely theatrical Chef Slowik and his unified “Yes, Chef!”-spouting staff. He has a very special menu in store for them, so let the courses begin! Haute cuisine comes with haute tension, and then things get quite diabolical. Does anyone live to see dessert?

Taut, snappily written, and sharply acted, “The Menu” is so tantalizing and intriguing from the jump that one worries it can’t possibly stick the final course or fill you up. But guess what? It does and it will, without lacking bite and nerve. As the courses pile up along with the simmering tension (aided by Colin Stetson's sinister yet playful score), the diners still aren’t sure if they’re getting a whole theatrical experience with their food. Neither do we, and that’s key to what makes the film such an amusingly macabre, wildly unpredictable experience. Relatable without being obvious or tired, Reiss and Tracy's script exorcises so many frustrations found in the service industry, whether it's on the side of the consumer who just wants to enjoy their food, to the front of the house where customer satisfaction is key, to the kitchen where artistic obsession eclipses edible love. As for the film's technical craft, it's as stylishly presented as the plates for each of Slowik’s courses, which cleverly come with title cards and ingredients; the worse the evening gets, the darker and funnier the meals get.

Director Mylod has gathered quite the ensemble, each of them perfectly chosen. Even if it’s hard to corral everyone and make sure every performer gets his or her moment to shine, no one comes out as a weak link. Without selling anyone short, Anya Taylor-Joy may get the most character nuance as independent-minded outsider Margot (or is that really her name?), and she does say what we’re all thinking as the audience surrogate. It’s also thrilling to watch Taylor-Joy go toe to toe with Ralph Fiennes’ pretentious Chef Slowik and completely hold her own; she will make you want a good old-fashioned cheeseburger real bad afterwards. Fiennes, himself, proves he’s a master at being a methodical villain but also the deliverer of precise vengeance with the perfect garnish. The disgustingly rich deserves all the nasty jabs, making “The Menu” really gel as an original, cruelly witty charred-black comedy to be savored.

Grade: B +

Searchlight Pictures is releasing “The Menu” (106 min.) in theaters on November 18, 2022.