The appeal of trendy restaurants has always escaped me. Why pay top dollar for food that comes in small portions and doesn’t even taste as good as what you’d order at the average fast food joint? It’s the definition of style over substance. Most self-proclaimed foodies seem more interested in taking photos of their meals than eating them. They may look festive on Instagram, but taste is the sense that matters above all else. The Menu bites into everything wrong with avant-garde eateries. Unlike a lot of the restaurants it satirizes, this dark comedy goes beyond creating an immersive ambiance. The main course also leaves an invigorating sensation in your mouth.
Anya Taylor-Joy could be described as a scream queen, but none of her horror ventures have been the same. In The Witch, she played a seemingly innocent girl with something darker lurking underneath. In Split, she was a final girl with a twist. In Last Night in Soho, she was the mystery girl of your dreams/nightmares. In The Menu, Taylor-Joy plays Margot, a young woman escorted to an elitist restaurant on a remote island. Her date is Nicholas Hoult’s Tyler, who lives on his phone and desperately seeks the approval of strangers. This includes Ralph Fiennes’ Julian Slowik, the restaurant’s renowned chef. Also in attendance are Janet McTeer as a food journalist, John Leguizamo as a washed-up movie star, and Judith Light as a longsuffering wife.
It’s evident from the get-go that this restaurant is unconventional, but that’s to be expected. Only a few courses in, though, dinner takes a dark turn. Suddenly, getting bread to go with the minuscule servings is no longer the primary concern. Money no longer matters as the guests begin to fear for their lives. The only one unphased is Tyler, who’s too enamored by his idol to care about his or anyone else’s fate. The other cooks obey Slowik’s every command in a cult-like fashion, which isn’t too far from how we treat celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay.
There is an almost religious subtext to how foodies blindly rave about certain chefs and restaurants. Like any cult leader, though, Slowik isn’t worthy of the praise that others shower upon him. The only indivisual who catches onto this is Margot, who emerges as the one person who might be able to lower the curtain on his dinner and show. Fiennes blends legitimate terror and humor like biscuits and gravy. While Margot is the easiest character to root for, we sympathize with most of the other guests. They may be entitled, but there are people more deserving of what’s on the menu.
The clever script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy could’ve functioned as a play given the limited setting. However, director Mark Mylod brings a cinematic touch that makes a single dining room feel simultaneously vast and claustrophobic. Each course keeps you guessing with the best saved for dessert. The resolution serves as a hilarious punch line and a testament to one character’s street smarts. If there’s a phrase that gets tossed around far too much in film criticism, it’s “chef’s kiss.” Usually, I’ll avoid it, but in The Menu’s case, it’s too appetizing to pass up.