The Menu is the latest instance in a mini-trend of black comedies exploring the depravities of the extremely affluent. Like The White Lotus, which takes place in a resort, and Triangle of Sadness, which takes place aboard a luxury cruise ship, The Menu is set in the kind of exclusive environment the inside of which most people will never see – a high-class restaurant on a private island. These black comedies typically indulge the audience’s schadenfreude at seeing their social superiors suffer various indignities and humiliations. Death hangs in the background as the ultimate punishment for the hypocrisy of the elite, and death is very much on the table from the opening scenes of The Menu.
Mark Mylod‘s film begins with a group of these elites boarding a ferry to attend a highly conceptual dinner assembled by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The odd one out amongst the guests is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is accompanying the idiotic foodie, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), as his date. In the opening scene he tells her off for ruining her palate by smoking, establishing the tenor of their relationship.
The film kicks into gear very quickly, which is good for the impatient who want to get to the horrors of the dinner itself as quickly as possible. One criticism that could be made of The Menu is that most of the characterisation relies upon the use of fairly shallow types – a pretentious food critic, a faded movie star, an elderly couple who don’t really have any defining traits except for “rich.” With that being said, the film hardly aims for subtlety, and Margot and Julian’s characters are both drawn well enough to compensate.
I don’t want to spoil the nature of the meal itself, because although The Menu is not exactly unpredictable, a lot of the ghoulish pleasure of the film comes from trying to anticipate exactly how these rich philistines are going to be punished next. Suffice to say that the courses quickly transition from the merely annoyingly conceptual – like a bread platter without bread – to the macabre. Fiennes is great as Slowik, who runs the meal like a deranged showman, no longer bothering to conceal his utter contempt for his customers. The slavish adulation of his kitchen staff and the stupidity and selfishness of the guests are both played well for laughs. The Menu is very funny overall. It’s not especially subtle, but there are some great lines and everything is very well timed.
The heart of the film, insofar as it has one, is in the developing connection between Margot and Julian. Although not kindred spirits, they both have spent their lives serving others rather than being served themselves, and The Menu is ultimately about the barrier between those two conditions. No matter how successful he becomes, Slowik feels that he is fundamentally still flipping burgers in a fast food restaurant – except now people only pretend to like his unbearable deconstructed dishes.
I enjoyed The Menu a lot. Ninety percent of the comedy consists in watching people you don’t like suffer in imaginative ways, while the other ten percent is about how insufferable haute cuisine is. If that’s what you’re into, you’ll have a great time.
The Menu is currently playing in cinemas.