The Menu (15)
Director: Mark Mylod
Screenplay: Seth Reiss, Will Tracy
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult
Review: David Stephens
Eating's great, isn't it? Stuffing tasty morsels of edible deliciousness down your gullet and savouring the taste as it slip-slides to a digestive fate. Not so great perhaps, when you're in a horror movie though. You could be the main course for a cannibalistic boogeyman or a feral creature. Or you could be in the cast list of a film where the food bites back, like The Stuff or … err … Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. However, here's "The Menu", which is a jet-black comedy horror with a top-notch troupe of actors, including Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, Nicholas Hoult, John Leguizamo, and Janet McTeer. It's directed by Mark Mylod, a British television director and filmmaker who has worked on many episodes of shows like Succession, Game of Thrones, and others. It opened at TIFF earlier this year and has gained some good preview notices. So we wanted a taster…
We start at the docks with a romantic couple Tyler (Hoult) and Margo (Taylor-Joy) waiting for a boat. They're part of a group that has paid an exorbitant price to dine at Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant sited on an island just off the shoreline. It's run by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Fiennes, as good as you would expect), who makes Gordon Ramsay look like a saint. The diners assembled include a self-centred critic, a washed-up film star, and asshat business people. However, Margo is the odd one out, being a late replacement for Tyler's ex-girlfriend, and she feels a little underwhelmed by the theatrical presentation of the minuscule meals from Slowik and his crew. But then things go a bit farther than anyone was expecting…
To be honest, you're going to get more of a kick out of The Menu if you're personally pissed off with how pretentious and downright ludicrous the catering and hospitality industry has become in many areas. If you hate how most main courses in Michelin-starred restaurants can be eaten in a single gulp and that meals are more valued for their Instagram picture quality than actual nutritional value … then this one's for you. More than anything else, the plot is a multi-pronged attack on the way in which foodies and arrogant chefs have ruined the dining experience and turned it into a series of nonsensical art installations.
Forget some guy camply spraying salt on your overpriced steak for 500 quid. Here we have a single scallop on a rock with frozen vegetation and a breadless bread platter. All of which are wholly believable, as is the ridiculous sycophantic reaction to them. Whereas Slowik, Tyler, and some of the other diners represent the ludicrous adulation for such behaviour, Margo is our "everyman" and the voice of reason. Refusing to pander to Slowik's excesses or his arrogance, she's a character we can root for, especially when the dining gets tough and the tough get napkins.
It's worth noting that the film probably benefits from a lack of advanced knowledge, but not to the extent that Barbarian does. You can probably guess where it's going and bar a couple of minor plot twists; you probably aren't going to be majorly surprised in any way. Perhaps unusually, there is relatively little in the form of overt genre content (i.e. lots of blood), and when you expect it to go for Grand Guignol moments, it doesn't. It's pretty restrained in that respect. The real entertainment comes from watching Fiennes and Taylor-Joy have their moments in the centre stage and savouring the kicking that pretentious food practices get into the bargain.
Needless to say, Fiennes and Taylor-Joy are both a joy to watch, and they "get" their characters in all respects. Hoult also deserves some credit for his turn as a subtly unsavoury character, as well as Leguizamo, McTeer, and Hong Chau (as the unruffled Maître d'). Like the meal service, the pace is slow and steady, and there's a nice focus on characterisation. Every table has its own little sub-plot, which is being played out to a grand finale that is out of the guest's hands.
As enjoyable as all this is and as well-paced as the plot is, it's all a little bit "nouvelle cuisine" in many respects. In other words, you wish there was a bit more to it, and you'll find yourself pining for an extra side-order of scenic snacks to get rid of that empty feeling. There is some real satisfaction in one moment where a particular character has an epiphany that brings all of the culinary themes together. Still, it's not really a strong enough ending to pin the whole film on. The actual outcome itself is annoyingly low-key, which is a complaint that you could level at some of the other "horror-tinged" scenes. All of the satire is clever and biting, but you just can't help wishing that some of the characters had been let off the leash a little bit more or that some of the scenes were more melodramatic. Despite that, there's still some tasty stuff here for fans of snarky commentary and character acting. By the way, be sure to take a pen and paper so that you can write down the recipe for "Tyler's Bullshit".