Anyone who has experience with food service knows that it can often be a thankless job. Despite the satisfaction and artistry that comes with preparing a meal, restaurant work can also be full of complaints from privileged customers and people that are impossible to please. THE MENU is not only recognition for the food service workers who tirelessly work every day for their customers’ momentary enjoyment, but also criticism of the ultra rich who have impossibly high standards. The movie also serves as an indictment of critics who tear down creators without a second thought to how it will affect their livelihoods, and even targets celebrity chefs who put themselves on a culinary pedestal that only the wealthy can experience. THE MENU has quite a lot on its mind, and yet it manages to balance all of these themes with expert skill while also delivering a good old-fashioned thriller with copious amounts of dark humor.
Director Mark Mylod’s film takes place on a remote island where acclaimed chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) is hosting a dining experience unlike any other. 12 lucky guests pay thousands of dollars to receive the finest meals one can consume. The narrative follows a young couple — one of whom is a passionate foodie who craves exquisite cuisine (Nicholas Hoult) and the other who doesn’t know anything about food culture and doesn’t care to (Anya Taylor-Joy) — and the 10 other rich, conceited guests as they embark from the mainland to their culinary destination. Right off the bat, we are served a juicy dose of satire regarding the pretentiousness of the foodie community, represented excellently by Hoult, and the way they talk about a simple meal. His character is the script’s punching bag when it comes to obsession and glorification of food and the auteurs who cook it, and Hoult manages to emit the vanity of that pursuit while delivering some memorable emotional beats as the movie continues.
Once the cast of characters arrives at the island and converges in the stylish, post-modern dining room, screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy plant the rest of the narrative in the same location, where the group gets each course served by Chef Slowik and his team of cooks. Setting a film in a single location is a difficult task, yet Reiss and Tracy’s script is tight and engaging, creating a fun and rich atmosphere where the skilled actors could all individually shine. Each course is full of surprises and social commentary, which brings one of the year’s best performances with Fiennes as the intimidating chef who has concocted a disturbing evening for his guests. As the film gets darker and darker, turning into more of a psychological horror film than a social satire, Fiennes injects every scene with a threatening calmness that keeps the tension alive even while the movie still doubles as a comedy.
Part of the fun of THE MENU is seeing what theme it will tackle next as each course gets progressively more disturbing, culminating in a pointed criticism of the ultra-rich customers who have no clue what it is like to be a worker in the service industry. A food critic played by Janet McTeer exemplifies this perfectly, as her tendency to shut down restaurants with no remorse by giving them scathing reviews is revealed. Along this theme, we are also given yet another incredible performance from Taylor-Joy, who plays a far more complex character than meets the eye. The dynamic between Fiennes as the determined chef and Taylor-Joy as the resistant customer is electric and schools the audience on top-notch acting every time they are on-screen together.
From the opening scenes of THE MENU until the credits roll , I felt as if the movie could have kept going for 20 more minutes and I would have never noticed the time fly by, which shows just how engaging and well-constructed Mylod’s film is. His directing, along with every technical and performance-based aspect of the production, holds this thrill-ride together to create a crowd-pleasing winner with no lack of thematic heft. THE MENU is some of the most fun one can have in a theater this Oscar-season — a hilarious commentary on the food industry while being an unpredictable thrill-ride and another one of the great commentaries on class audiences have received in 2022.