"The Menu" Review
As a cinephile and critic, the occurrence of asking the question “what is going to happen next?” while watching a movie is one of the most valuable and enjoyable experiences. It’s what makes the Knives Out films so enjoyable, because writer/director Rian Johnson always knows how to be one step ahead of the viewer, twisting and turning their preconceptions of what can happen in a whodunnit. On the inverse of that spectrum lies the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I still greatly appreciate the majority of the time. But, I do have to admit that it’s getting exponentially tiring to see the same formula repeat itself 3-4 times each year.
However, no movie (barring maybe Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or Glass Onion) has made me ask the question “what is going to happen next?,” more frequently and passionately than The Menu.
Colin Stetson’s Hereditary-esque score (so you know something sinister is waiting in the wings) acutely plays while Ralph Fiennes’ world-renowned Chef Julian Slowik (walking and talking with unwavering intensity like Hannibal Lecter) welcomes his elite guests to the island of Hawthorne, where they will dine like kings and queens. Unbeknownst to the patrons, they each have been assembled intentionally and catered to with the utmost precision towards a much darker grand goal. There’s a fading movie star (John Leguizamo); a snobby food critic (Janet McTeer) and her yes-man editor; a wealthy regular customer (Reed Birney) and his wife (Judith Light); and a trio of tech bros that came only so that they could brag about it.
At the center of the narrative are the final guests Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a foodie that acts as if he’s a teenage girl about to go backstage and meet Harry Styles, and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), Tyler’s date for the evening that finds all this food worshiping to be a bit much. Margot’s presence is a disturbance to Slowik, who did not account for her as Tyler made the reservation several months ago before they were a couple (the restaurant does not allow single reservations). Trying to keep the evening going as originally planned is the steely Elsa (Hong Chau), the second-in-command who guests while Slowik handles the food. From one course to the next, the chef answers his guest’s increasingly desperate questions through his painstakingly crafted works of art.
Just like any great food movie (Chef, Julie & Julia), The Menu delightfully makes you crave the dishes it serves up, even if you don’t understand what half of them are. Ingredients for each are slyly displayed as they are introduced, so you can attempt to remake them if your heart desires (I suggest finishing the movie before finalizing that decision). Regular David Lynch cinematographer Peter Deming and production designer Ethan Tobman cast a luxuriously simplistic shadow over everything akin to the work in Parasite.
And similarly to Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Best Picture winner, screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy infuse their dark thriller with social commentary about elitism, gender roles, and creators vs. critics. There’s a dark satisfaction to watching some of these characters receive their comeuppance, even if the punishment far exceeds the crime. Director Mark Mylod, returning to film after a lengthy stint at HBO with Succession and Game of Thrones, keeps the film tightly knotted, building the pressure from the moment the guests step foot on the island all the way to the end.
Of the films I used for comparison, each of them is better than The Menu in their respective traits. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out characters are more fleshed out and entertaining, the social commentary and technical aspects of Parasite are better developed, and the actual Hannibal Lecter is far more sinister. But the one overarching skill that The Menu does better than all those films (yes, I’m saying Parasite isn’t the best at everything, calm down Letterboxd) is that it holds your attention like a vice grip and keeps you frantically guessing all the way through. That alone is more than worth the price of admission, which becomes a bargain once you factor in all the other delectable aspects.