Review by C.J. Bunce
After decades of discussion, learning, and entertainment from the likes of Julia Child in 1963 to the Food Network three decades later, somewhere in the following three decades chefs and their foodie-branded, loyal hangers-on lost their way. What did the chefs and foodies forget about after six decades of food shows on TV, foodie culture, and general food snobbery? Only Guy Fieri had it right with his Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. It’s The Joy of Eating. That vacuum seems to be what got the hackles up for screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, who put their ideas into the 2022 film The Menu. An indictment on the haute couture of fooddom wrapped in horror movie form, The Menu is now streaming.
On its face, The Menu doesn’t look like what it is. And that’s a horror movie, complete with freakish characters, a Marshall Applewhite-type cult leader, and shocker blood and gore. It gains its legitimacy via today’s best actor around, Ralph Fiennes, as a chef who has had enough of the hours, the uninspired, unappreciative clientele, and so, Falling Down-style, he decides to create a final masterpiece dinner event at his posh, exclusive, island resort ristorante. Fiennes is the best part of the show, bottling up his inner Gordon Ramsay. Second place goes to today’s most promising actress, Anya Taylor-Joy as a guest who is basically a bystander that gets suckered into this one-of-a-kind dining experience. Taylor-Joy is versatile and demonstrates it again here.
Another ex-Marvel superhero actor, Nicholas Hoult, is a scary sort who demonstrates the worst side of fandom: mindless obsession. With Fiennes’s Chef Slowik on the one extreme, Hoult forms the other edge of a textbook cult. This is director Mark Mylod’s first movie, and it feels like a long TV episode of some anthology series like Black Mirror. The movie is absurd, a full-on farce, but it also makes its point. It is, to borrow its parlance, a perfect pairing, with another freakish film from fooddom’s past, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover. It’s so close that if there was one more movie like them (a drama that attempts something more than slashery shlock) I’d call it its own genre.
Mylod unfolds the story as the menu is revealed to customers of the exclusive restaurant called the Hawthorn, chaptered course by course with menu cards for the viewing audience. The best scene is the bread course. Fiennes’ chef reminds his captive audience that bread has always been a food for the poor, so he skips serving bread altogether, announcing what the bread would have been if served, and instead serves only the spreads, which we can only hope had some sort of olives or oil or other tasty menagerie of flavor.
But wait–it doesn’t matter how many Michelin stars he has, or James Beard awards he’s won–if the customers leave hungry, the chef has failed to do the job. (How often have you gone to an expensive dinner with all the fine cuisine but small portions? And what’s with all the butter and fat? Do chefs live in a world where butter and fat aren’t lethal killers? Let’s skip the topic of rude wait staff…) But the writers in The Menu makes sure the staff gets no better fate than the investors, the critics, and the diners. To that end you just have to say, “bravo,” or, sure, “bon appetit.”
What is a strange meal turns to something darker. Soon the diners are let in on the punchline. At one point they are led outside, and it seems like the sole point is so the director could get to create a fleeting take on The Last Supper, which is apt:
The Menu is a good indictment of all pretentious pop culture fandoms (psst… at some level they all have their pretentious players). Unfortunately it’s all the dark horror variety and there’s not enough fun intertwined. Taylor-Joy plays another trapped character here as she was in The New Mutants, The Queen’s Gambit, and Amsterdam, but especially Split–and it’s the pacing and tension of Split that The Menu is most like. Fortunately there’s a good payoff at the end. From a dramatic standpoint, there’s some value in comparing how the writers reflect the real-life components of the Slowik/Hawthorn cult as a sort of case study. It has everything but actual Kool-Aid.
The cherry on the dessert of The Menu is a fairly hidden Easter egg you probably will only spot if you’re paying close attention, and it really brings the entire movie full circle. That’s the incredibly familiar-but-I can’t-quite-place-it face of Peter Grosz as the friendly and by-the-book sommelier. The former writer for The Colbert Report is of course best known as one of the duo of regular guys who starred in the Sonic Drive-in commercials for years. That’s Sonic the fast-food restaurant. It’s truly clever casting.
The characters are pretentious, but the movie isn’t so pretentious that everyone won’t be able to follow along. They just might get bored. The Menu is a worthy watch for those in on the joke, those expatriates of decades of food and foodie programming (both connotations of the word intended). But even they will run screaming afterward straight to an episode of The Great British Baking Show, that last safehouse, that sole bastion of goodness in the foodie world.
Catch The Menu still in theaters in the U.S., and now streaming on HBO Max and other platforms.