It should come as no surprise to learn, once audiences see the movie, that The Menu was produced by Adam McKay and directed by Mark Mylod. The Menu could easily take place in some back corner of the Succession universe – I imagine that Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) would probably move heaven and earth to get the Roy family to sit down to one of his dinners if he could – and The Menu is very much kin to the themes and the humor of that show.
It’s a nasty piece of dark comedy that doesn’t pull its punches or spare anyone within swinging distance. Perhaps these days subtlety has been tossed aside for more direct examination of the subject of the haves and the have-nots – who has time for nuance at the end of the world? But the direct approach works here in a way that it did not in Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. You must give us something to root for, some kind of hope that all this anger can be put to some kind of use.
That someone to root for is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who has been invited to a very special dinner being held by Chef Slowik on Hawthorne Island, an exclusive restaurant for the super-rich. She’s invited by her date Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), but it’s not exactly a date, as we come to learn as the evening unfolds.
Best not revealed here, but all the guests invited to this particular dinner have special meaning to Chef Slowik, and we quickly learn as the food begins to arrive that Slowik has been planning this meal for a long time.
The Menu wastes no time getting to its points, which is refreshing. A lot of satires like this try to ease us into the story, but we learn quickly that things are not as they should be. Each course that comes seems to mock and chastise the guests, and Slowik and his extremely loyal staff command the room with authority.
But something is amiss – Margot is an outsider, and Slowik recognizes it immediately. As the night goes on, it becomes a battle of wills between Margot and Slowik, and as tensions build and the stakes are raised it becomes increasingly uncertain who will win.
Ralph Fiennes is having the time of his life as Chef Slowik, and it shows – it’s long past due that Fiennes be recognized at awards season for his work throughout the years, but The Menu just may be the movie that does it. I love his Chef Gordon Ramsey by way of a Willy Wonka performance. Imagine the boat ride scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory stretched out to feature length and you get the idea what Fiennes is doing here, but he’s also pulling from what we know and have seen from a million streaming chef shows.
He’s wickedly funny while not laying too many cards on the table. Let’s just say that Chef Slowik’s motivations, best discovered in the movie, may be entirely justified – or they may not be. Fiennes fills Slowik with a rage that anyone who has ever worked behind a counter or in a kitchen will be very familiar with.
Anya Taylor-Joy matches Fiennes’ performance with a passionate one of her own, and it’s terrific fun watching the two of them go head-to-head. Although Margot throws a wrinkle into Slowik’s plans, Slowik can still recognize a kindred spirit when he sees one, and much of the charm and joy of The Menu is seeing Slowik and Margot circle each other, trying to probe each other’s weaknesses.
Margot’s “date,” Tyler, is a foodie who looks at Chef Slowik as some kind of god, and Hoult is very funny as he savors the insanity to come, as if it’s all part of the meal. Hoult has no problem steering into his Tyler’s flaws and giving us a truly unlikable but still compelling character. The supporting cast is in on the joke as well, especially John Leguizamo as an unnamed movie star who may be at that juncture in his career where people start to figure out what kind of phony he is.
The themes of The Menu are obvious, but that doesn’t make them any less important. The Menu has a lot on its mind – the parasitic nature of the wealthy onto a service industry that sees them with absolute contempt, the privilege that becomes tested when the tables are turned, the guilt we all carry in allowing the societal mechanisms of capitalism that oppress us all to continue, even a bit about fandom can go too far and how artists can come to resent even their most loyal fans.
Mylod juggles a lot of themes and does so well, and while plotwise not all these pieces fit smoothly, we’re having too much fun watching these people squirm to care. One of the pleasures of a show like Succession is watching these rich jerks fall in completely avoidable ways, and The Menu gives us a whole slew of people to root against.
But what I found moving about The Menu is that there is a way we can break out of these destructive patterns, with empathy for our fellow person and how kindness can pierce the darkness, and how simple pleasures remain some of the best ones. Satire is at its best when we are given a way through; one of the reasons I didn’t care for Don’t Look UP was because it offered no resolutions, no hopeful outlook for the future.
Satire doesn’t work if it’s totally bleak and dark – it may be the truth, but it doesn’t motivate us to fight. The Menu motivates us to fight, that there is still something worth saving, and it does so in a wildly entertaining way. With excellent performances, witty writing, and confident direction all around, you’re going to want to order off The Menu.
THE MENU REVIEW SCORE: 8.5 OUT OF 10
Searchlight Pictures will release The Menu in theaters on November 18, 2022. The film is rated R for strong/disturbing violent content, language throughout and some sexual references.
Alan Cerny has been writing about film for more than 20 years for such sites as Ain’t It Cool News, CHUD, Birth Movies Death, and ComingSoon. He has been a member of the Houston Film Critics Society since 2011. STAR WARS biased. Steven Spielberg once called Alan a “very good writer,” and Alan has the signed letter to prove it, so it must be true.