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Mark Mylod's dark comedic satire will satisfy not only those with solid appetites but appreciate an original film with weaving tones and thrilling acting from Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes.
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Following its respective premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest, who knows what my expectations were heading with the latest from Searchlight Picture, "The Menu." Was the trailer made out to be an over-the-top experience on so many levels? Similar to trying a food you haven't eaten, I didn’t know what to expect out of this.
Yet if you're searching for a film to guarantee a great time, then this is a perfectly tailor-made satire for those who can't stand decadent fine dining and then some.
Directed by Mark Mylod ("Succession") and written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, this tells the tale of a young couple named Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) as they take a trip by a ferry to a remote island in the Pacific Northwest to dine at the highly exclusive restaurant Hawthorne, operated by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). It’s a restaurant so popular it’s impossible to reserve a place there for $1,250.
The rest of the guest list includes the likes of food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein); frequent wealthy couple Richard and Anne Libbrandt (Reed Birney and Judith Light); a washed-up movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero); and three finance bros (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, and Mark St. Cyr). The dinner guests are treated to six lavish courses with thematic presentations and many surprises to come their way.
Anybody who walks into this cold, knowing very little about what it’s all about, will have a pleasant time with the anticipated build-up for under two hours. But, instead, Reiss and Tracy’s script rides an unpredictable line until the end.
With thousands of dollars to spend, their evening starts as pretentious just based on what’s being served to them (a breadless bread plate), then the night goes in an unexpected direction that the audience definitely doesn’t want to be a part of.
However, be ready for a social commentary on the wealthy, those whose life is centered around food culture, and our desire to excel in our fields. And this also applies to any career, if you think about it. You know, those who take high-quality photos of foods before eating them or treat themselves to the most expensive item worth thousands?
As someone like me who enjoys affordable food served in front of me and watches the Cooking channel now and then, never once would I take a chance to become a critic when talking about food. And when it’s a premise following a bunch of rich people served meals, that’s out of some of us weekly checks. Why these people were chosen out of thousands of people is what we want to know and keeps it grounded until a taste of excitement comes out.
Even when "The Menu" marketing appears as a horror film, this is suited strongly as a thriller with some dark comedy thrown in for good measure. And there were plenty of laughs throughout, especially whenever title cards showed up to describe the dish.
That goes for a vibe likely to be compared to "The Cabin in the Woods" and "Ready or Not," making for a nice mesh you wouldn’t normally think of but works wonders. The closest aspect of this being a horror movie, besides a few occasions of blood, is the unintentional jump scares whenever Fiennes claps his hands super loudly to the point it’ll wake you up instantly.
While Mylod has a better track record of directing television rather than feature films, something is absorbing in an unsettling atmosphere since most of the story takes place in this single dining room with a large glass window with a beautiful view and the kitchen. Since the characters don't move around much, it could have become tedious, but it makes the discussions from each individual more interesting within the setting.
Everything is all about presentation, and it's hard not to notice the production design of the restaurant inside and the cinematography from Peter Deming when framing a shot of the food actually made me want to have it, despite knowing anything smaller than pebbles can be that expensive.
This has an impressive cast to glue your attention to, but it’s the easiest thing to say that both Ralph Fiennes and Anya-Taylor Joy shine here. Fiennes, especially, commands every scene he’s in. Imagine viewing him as a more menacing Gordon Ramsey, yet playing it straight the entire time. After his evil turns as Amon Goth in "Schindler's List" and Voldemort in the "Harry Potter" franchise, he still proves he can be an intimidating and mysterious villain.
And with the talented Taylor-Joy as our lead, she’s terrific as the film’s protagonist/ final girl who does not understand what it means to take in these meals since her date invited her at the last minute. Margot doesn’t even try to care about the various cuisines in front of her, knowing full well she’s not meant to be at this restaurant. You can feel the fueling tension whenever these two share a scene in their interactions knowing each other, with Slowik finding her challenging for not eating.
As for everyone else, they all played their parts well to where they didn’t reach the level of arrogance I imagined. This might’ve been the first time Nicholas Hoult played an unlikeable character, the kind of obsessed foodie you don’t want to be at the same table with, as Tyler is just fascinated by Slowik’s work. Hong Chau’s deadpan performance as Slowik’s second-in-command/ hostess Elsa is a joy (another notable role from her this year following "The Whale") in a more demeaning presence when around the customers.
No spoilers, but there’s something about the way the film concludes that probably won’t please everybody. It was certainly bizarre and not what I had in mind, but it was too unbelievable what actually happened. With that said, I still walked out feeling entertained. But after it ended, it accomplished what I thought it would do: Give me an excuse to visit Five Guys to satisfy my hunger.
"The Menu" is a total surprise, brimming with delicious intrigue. This is because it’s such a darkly humorous thriller with a side of satire so sharply written. With a sharp screenplay, strong direction, and outstanding performances from Taylor-Joy and Fiennes, respectively, this original film didn’t leave me feeling empty, making me curious to see what Mylod would do next in the director’s chair.