Every once in a while, you see a movie so fully realized and so complete, that manages to come on strong and end on a high note, that when the credits roll it feels like all that’s left to do is applaud. That’s the short version of my review of The Menu, which hits theaters on November 18th. Excellent work, no notes. I don’t think I’d change a frame.
Walking out of the theater, I overheard someone else who’d been at the same screening compare The Menu to The Hunt — presumably the 2020 Betty Gilpin one, not the 2012 Thomas Vinterberg one — a comparison both apt and a little insulting. The Hunt was a movie in which “elites” hunt “deplorables” for sport, the kind of movie destined to always and forever be associated with the Trump era. The same way you can walk into someone’s house and see shag carpets and avocado-colored couches and instantly think “you decorated this in 1975,” so you can hear “elites” and “deplorables” and instantly think “this was produced between 2016 and 2020.”
Most eras’ buzzwords have a shockingly short shelf life, to the point that you get a little PTSD just hearing terms like “radical Islamic terrorism,” “binders full of women,” “axis of evil,” etc. You can rest pretty well assured that whatever the hot topic is in political media right now, it’s going to be comically irrelevant in a year.
The Menu shares with The Hunt a high-schlock genre premise and undercurrent of class war, but there’s a self-assuredness to Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s script that isn’t grasping at buzzwords for relevancy. Such that I can imagine it being basically the same movie and being just as good 10 years ago or 10 years from now.
Nicholas Hoult plays Tyler, some kind of super-foodie who has seen every episode of Chef’s Table and has recently spent thousands of dollars on a culinary experience that involves traveling to a remote island to sample a tasting menu prepared by an acclaimed chef. He has dragged along with him his new… girlfriend, presumably — Margot, played by Anya Taylor-Joy in full late 90s cool girl mode, complete with chunky Doc Martens, F-you bangs, and blood-red lipstick sharply defining her pronounced Cupid’s bow. In the first scene, Tyler scolds her for smoking a cigarette. “This menu is very delicate,” he hisses, in an echo of the “are you chewing gum” scene in Sideways, while Margot rolls her eyes.
The other passengers on the boat are, basically, a bunch of assholes, in various shades. There are three success-win bros on an expense account, played by Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, and Mark St. Cyr; a loveless married rich couple played by Reed Birney and Judith Light (!!); a Johnny Depp-esque name-dropping celebrity has-been and his long-suffering assistant, played by John Leguizamo and Aimee Carrero; a snobby food critic and her publisher, played by Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein, and naturally, a mysterious mute old woman (Rebecca Coon). They’re soon welcomed to the island by the reclusive chef’s polite but clearly wicked hostess, played by the brilliant Hong Chau, who should’ve won awards for her work in Downsizing and Inherent Vice and who is an absolute delight once again here.
At long last the patrons meet their host, Jeremy Slowik, played by Ralph Fiennes, who is maybe better than anyone at suppressed menace, and malice disguised with pleasantries. Slowik and his kitchen brigade, who sleep in barracks and snap to militaristic attention when Slowik claps his hands, seem to be suspiciously knowledgeable about their customers’ private lives. The presence of Margot, a last-minute addition, seems to throw them for a loop.
The Menu is ostensibly about foodies — and as someone who moonlights as a food writer myself, I can confirm that all the references are spot-on without overdoing it — but culinary arts is mostly just a metaphor here. The story could apply to any art. It’s about the central contradiction of basically every artform. That while the artist may get into it to serve “the people,” the better at their craft and more prominent that artist gets, the narrower the demographic of their customer base becomes, until the point when it’s basically only the wealthy. Slowik has reached this point in his career and has hatched a grand plan to incorporate it into his magnum opus.
Directed by Mark Mylod, a longtime TV director who worked with writers Reiss and Tracy on Succession, The Menu‘s secret weapon (other than the excellent acting) is its comedy chops. Reiss and Tracy have backgrounds that include stints writing shows for The Onion, and both clearly know their way around a punchline. The Menu isn’t a straight-up comedy, but there are multiple laugh-out-loud moments.
The Menu is the best kind of genre movie, the kind that gives you the sense that its creators had the chops to serve us something finicky and avant-garde, but did it rustic and hearty instead, because that’s just the way they like it. It’s a perfectly-cooked cheeseburger of a movie, which isn’t trying to be foie gras seared on a hot rock over a bed of foraged botanicals, but in which every element — bun, patty, cheese, veg — is lovingly prepared, perfectly executed, and working together in perfect harmony.