The Menu as a film is as conceptual and simple as a chef’s special tasting. When going into any restaurant we know more or less what flavors to expect, based on the description of a dish. The execution of flavor and what sets any food apart comes from the magic of the kitchen. One must laud the Writers (Seth Reiss and Will Tracy) and Director (Mark Mylod) for the guts to make a project as typically predictable as this. The audience walking in has only so many ways to mentally anticipate the plot in a cooking film, and keeping the material fresh is as challenging as a great chef making a simple dish taste new.
In many ways this film presents us with predictable base ingredients. The cast is comprised of a douchey trio of wall street bros, a pair of insufferable food snobs, an estranged married couple, an aging Hollywood actor with his lover / assistant, and a couple on a first date; one of which is an enthusiast of fine cuisine.
You could quite easily plug and play this same cast into any standard horror flick. What made this a better base mixture was the quality of said ingredients. While nobody jumped out in an Oscar race, there were no bad performances. Everyone was sound in their role.
The opening segment takes this group to a remote island where an exclusive restaurant and hermitic chef awaits to provide them all with an exclusive dining experience. The previews and opening setup eludes to a “Willy Wonka” meets The “Most Dangerous Game” through-line.
Right from the jump the film was making its roux and setting expectation. The problem with this setup is that it’s been done ad nauseam. Immediately the mind jumps to an inevitable manhunt, booby traps, hostage situation, and cannibalism. Refreshingly though, The Menu kept its poise and presented us with a fun and distinctively formatted deliverance.
The guts of the movie are broken up by courses delivered to the special patrons of the restaurant and described playfully in a menu’d font and restaurant logo on the screen, complete with ingredients listed. With each dish the plot grows more intriguing with bits revealed not only about the guests, but the chef himself. It slowly simmers to a dark “12 Angry Men” vibe as people in small pressurized spaces are forced to divulge their past.
The antagonist and head chef (Chef Slowik) is played by the always engrossing Ralph Fiennes. His intensity in the part plays well as someone who must lead a kitchen of artist experts, while also cleverly revealing secrets as the film progresses. As Ralph does, he delivers his dialogue somewhere between comedic and horrific which perfectly encapsulates the tone of the film. In essence he is the butter of the dish. He’s the guilty secret that makes everything taste good.
There aren’t any classic protagonists in the film, but the closest we come is Anya Taylor-Joy. She carries as much screen time as Fiennes and delivers the same performance she has in every one of her small or large screen endeavor. She’s the salt of the dish. We know what salt does, it’s always available and too much can ruin a dish. In this case the creators stopped just shy of over seasoning. While Taylor-Joy is just fine, she is outshined here by patrons Nicholas Hoult, Janet McTeer, and employee Hong Chau who each steal the limited scenes they’re in. Unfortunately they’re reduced to little more than character actors, but each exudes enough talent where you wish you had more than an amuse bouche portion of them.
The pacing of the film is perfect as we effortlessly move from one course to the next in anticipation without feeling the drag of the foreseeably obvious unfolding customer stories. The interweaving of personal revelation with the gastronomy and ever changing tales from the chef makes one forget that nearly the entire film takes place in one room. It’s impressive and hard to accomplish. Likewise the score of the film is deceptively simple. It’s string heavy and singular in instrumentation while also sparse. It makes its usage dramatic and builds into the small bits divulged through the chef in each course.
The big reveal in act three was not as expected which did make this a fun twist on an old dish. Even if just the equivalent of a sprig of parsley, it’s enough to liven the palate and make it memorable for a time.
The late Anthony Bourdain often used to say, “Good food is very often, even most often, simple food”. Like a seasoned chef, The Menu embraces this concept and that’s what makes it a fun watch. Of all the wild and dark places the mind takes you as you see these guests initially stepping off the ferry onto the remote island, it doesn’t take you to the realm of a burnt out chef making one last meal for a room full of assholes. There’s no people eating people, there’s no violent gore and man as prey, it’s real and beautiful food served to those that represent the chef’s mental decline. The twist is that there is no major twist. The chef in his finale has lost his passion and decided to become the evening’s art, along with his customers, and kitchen. In that concept we understand the vision of great chefs, creating temporary flavors that are fleeting and beautiful in the moment.
There are some bitter bites to the dish though. The film failed to explain (or even try) the devotion of Chef’s staff and willingness to all perish with him. Even in the ending some of the doomed diners seemingly agree with the chef’s lunacy and embrace his cult mentality before their demise, without reason or progression. There was also a definitive lack of food porn in this film. For something that was spoofing the high end culinary experience, we should have been treated to a bit more of the science and beauty of that creation instead of the plated finale as its presented.
There was also nothing remarkable about the direction or cinematography of this film and no coherency in material to push it into horror. It’s teetering closer to thriller as it just hesitated to go darker and lean into the cheeky concept that it is. In the end, the film is good fun but not extraordinary.
The Menu is a fine film to get your movie dollars out of and indeed enjoyable, but you’ll likely forget in a year until you catch it on basic cable or someone mentions S’mores. If it were an actual restaurant it would have a B rating. That said, I’ve had many a fine meal at a B restaurant and didn’t get food poisoning.