Mark Mylod’s sinister foray into the world of fine dining is delightfully dark, funny, and horrifying. It’s also well executed. The plot of The Menu revolves around the diabolical mind of Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) and a lavish dinner service that he's providing for 12 overly-esteemed guests at his restaurant, Hawthorne. The essence of the story winds up being a clever commentary on our society’s current obsession with fancy food.
The opening scenes of The Menu are brilliantly pretentious. For starters, food snob Tyler Ledford (Nicholas Hoult) admonishes his date, Margot Mills (Anya Taylor-Joy) for contaminating her palate with a cigarette before they saunter aboard a yacht that will take them and a gaggle of other guests to Hawthorne. After boarding is complete, they all enjoy a welcome dish of *(checks notes)* “lemon caviar served on raw oyster with mignonette” that would elicit effusive praise from the discerning likes of Gordon Ramsay or Emeril Lagasse.
And even though this scene is meant to be satirical, Mylod stuns you with vibrant color and tight composition. He does so throughout the movie in a masterful display of parody. The film’s setup concludes with the arrival of obsequious staff members eschewing their dignity for the sake of customer service. Hong Chau really stands out amongst this group as Hawthorne's maître d'hôtel, Elsa. The whole set up is such a wonderful indictment of privilege and pretense.
And the next 90 minutes don’t let up! In fact, the satire gets delightfully darker than the surface texture of a vanilla crème brûlée. John Leguizamo’s performance as a washed-up Hollywood actor constantly at odds with his agent has a real metafictive quality to it. The older couple of means that refuses to enjoy each other’s company in the midst of such luxury and decadence makes little people like us feel much better about not having their money or access. The pièce de résistance is Mylod’s interpretation of obnoxious finance bros and their petulant need to get to get what they want when they want it. The film is a masterclass in mockery.
And one of the hallmarks of a good lampoon is its ability to competently capture the essential elements of the thing it aims to poke fun at, and The Menu does just that. The interstitial scenes that spotlight Slowik’s dishes feel plucked straight from an episode of Top Chef. That show puts food on display like art rather than plain sustenance. And while food can certainly exist as art, food is ultimately nothing more than a fuel source for our bodies. That’s the joke on which The Menu bases its premise anyway. Shows like Chopped and Hell’s Kitchen give viewers great theater, but they bastardize the purpose of food in a way that makes them ripe for ridicule.
And I think it's fair criticism. Food is a crucial component of economy, but it is an even more crucial component of community. Family recipes exist more as totems than they do as methods. (My grandma used to make a meatloaf that was wholly forgettable, but it was MY GRANDMA’S meatloaf!) Lots of families consider dinnertime sacred because it represents a perfect bonding opportunity. Lunch with a colleague feels warmly collaborative because eating alone would make you feel like a feral wolf drummed out of its pack. These are the true powers of food. The Menu shows us how all of that gets undermined when food is adulterated by pretense and pomp.
In real life, food often falls into the backdrop of the human experience. I had lunch with a colleague a few weeks ago. I had a salad, and he had a bowl of bow-tie pasta. My salad wasn’t gourmet, and his noodles were pretty pedestrian. Slowik would scoff, but your grandma would approve. She would approve because the meal brought us together in a moment that was more important than the food.
Cooking shows and meal media aren’t going anywhere, nor should they. (The sole purpose of my TikTok account is to glorify food!) They’re fun and they give crumb bums like me an opportunity to live vicariously through their escapes. However, there's no good reason they should be an obsession, according to The Menu.
The Menu is currently streaming on HBO Max, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.