The Menu is being misadvertised. Based on the trailers, one might think it’s a horror movie or a Most Dangerous Game thriller knockoff. But it is, in fact, a pitch black dark comedy, a gruesome satire about not just the world of cooking, but about art in general. Fans, critics, posers, even artists themselves are skewered, as director Mark Mylod presents his vision of an artist fed up with all the pretense and compromise of his world.
The artist in question is Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), a renowned chef who runs one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants on a private island. He takes only 12 customers a night, and they must be ferried to the island via boat. There is no cell reception and pictures of the food are discouraged, all to force guests to live in the moment and appreciate the “ephemeral nature” of Slowik’s artistry. Such isolation also comes in handy when Slowik and his staff decide to turn one evening into an And Then There Were None-style murderous evening with personalized punishments for the guests ranging from the petty—repeatedly sending low quality sauce to a food critic—to the brutal—cutting off the ring finger of an adulterous guest—to the morbid—successfully encouraging a particularly cuisine-obsessed guest to commit suicide after mocking his poor cooking skills.
The guests had all been carefully selected to fit Slowik’s messages for the evening—except, that is, Margot (Anya Taylor Joy), the unplanned replacement date for Tyler (Nicholas Holt). Taylor Joy is considered one of Hollywood’s best actresses for good reason. With wit and flair, her bemused turn as Margot is the perfect audience surrogate and a clever play on the “last girl” trope of horror films. Holt plays the character of a pretentious foodie to a tee, while John Leguizamo provides a humorous turn as a has-been actor. Leguizamo’s comedic chemistry and banter with Aimee Carrero, who plays his assistant, makes the duo one of the highlights of the movie. And Fiennes brings an unhinged intensity to his role that makes it entirely believable that a chef could snap in this fashion.
The cinematography is gorgeous, with beautiful attention paid to the island where the film is set and to the food itself. The Menu may accurately be described as food porn with a plot. And as for said plot: For all its brutality, The Menu is still mostly a comedy. (As one would expect with a film produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell.) It is one of the sharpest written, funniest films of the year, with, perhaps, the funniest bit of dialogue of any movie this year (I will not attempt to replicate it here).
Like the menu planned by Slowick, The Menu has a message. But unlike other films that attempt to comment on social or political issues, The Menu handles its commentary with deft. Fanboys obsess past the point of being able to enjoy the art for what it is, posers don’t appreciate the true beauty of what they interact with, critics’ point of looking for flaws overshadows successes, financial backers think too much in terms of changing things and dumbing them down for greater gain. In the end, art is only worthwhile when the artist enjoys what he or she is doing and when the art is enjoyed simply for what it is.