Director: Mark Mylod
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Hong Chau, Ralph Fiennes
If the Palme d’Or winning Triangle of Sadness underscored anything, it was that the über rich don’t take “no” for an answer. With that truism in mind, its curious to watch Mark Mylod’s similarly sartorial take-down, which corrals a variety of extraordinary privileged types into a fine dining exercise in sadistic self-righteousness. Here a gaggle of hoity guests find themselves marooned at an island restaurant, having handed over $1,250 a head for a seat at Chef Slowik’s (Ralph Fiennes) table. Revered for his excellent cuisine and high-concept overarching themes, Slowik has become a prisoner of service to society’s ‘finest’. But this is a special night, and something quite different is on The Menu.
The set-up is ludicrous, the specificities and contrivances of Slowik’s plan circumspect, and a majority of the characters rather hollow. Based on a script from Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, Mylod serves up a smugly self-satisfied but still enjoyably campy sliver of class comedy, flecked with horror and a souciance of mystery. It’s a slick and pacy little movie, even as it sticks largely to one location as we’re guided – with mixed emotional beats – through a long evening of varied courses. Slowik’s guests include a trio of loathsome lackies tied to his chief financier, a washed-up actor (John Leguizimo) and his PA(?) (Aimee Carerro), a renowned freelance food critic (Janet McTeer), weary regulars, his mother(??) and… Tyler (Nicholas Hoult); a sycophantic foodie who’s thrown a fly into the ointment by bringing an unexpected guest – his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy).
As it becomes clear that Slowik and his staff have coalesced into some kind of extremist death cult, Margot’s presence irks at the nerves of the chef, who has fastidiously planned every beat of this grand feast. Her innocence sullies the effect of his masterplan, and so he works strenuously to find a narrative fit for her in his evening’s bloody entertainment.
At it’s best The Menu has the spirit of Agatha Christie at her most barbed. It enjoys, deliciously, the fret and worry of these spoiled individuals getting their just desserts. Rich = bad, we all know this. The Menu has nothing new to add to such a conversation, nor does it particularly try to. But the longer we’re in the company of Fiennes’ rather dreary ringmaster, the less this seems to be about class at all.
Slowik has a personal stake in the suffering of all of his guests, but the upstairs/downstairs schism that forms part of his reasoning doesn’t quite hold. With his robotic disciples and luxury cottage, there’s little sympathy for the devil in The Menu. Fiennes’ bored performance doesn’t help any. Slowik may talk loftily about the “givers” and the “takers”, but this quickly boils down to his own self-serving set of grudges. Indeed, Slowik and his ‘side’ take on the appearance of megalomaniac extremists, adhering to the chef’s own twisted dogma of personal grievances. The ‘us vs them’ dynamic breaks down. If anything Slowik is reminiscent of Trump and his herd of mindless supporters, albeit cast here as a depressed sadsack with a white smock. This tempers the sense of schadenfreude for the poor guests that the script really wants us to feel.
There are two attempts to address predatory sexual behaviours amid all this, but in both instances the severity of the acts are rather casually dismissed, which feels strange. Why bring them up at all if they’re to be shrugged off so simply? It’s emblematic of a film that feels like it has cast too wide a net. Ambition is great to see, no doubt. But when you’re then focused on bringing in a clippy ensemble, nuance is often the first thing to meet the shears. That may have been the case here.
With Slowik a half-speed bore and his guests uniformly unlikable, that leaves only Taylor-Joy’s Margot to carry the film. The doe-eyed young actor is as good as ever, and Margot’s refusal to play by the rules of mannered society provides much needed fuel to the fire. But it’s a role that also feels like a ‘type’; one that Taylor-Joy herself has performed before. Still, she’s the brightest spark here, matched only by Hong Chau’s coolly menacing Elsa (right-hand to Slowik, she wickedly prowls the dining space).
Still, The Menu grates as it entertains. The on-screen text that accompanies each new dish quickly loses its charm, roughly at the same rate that it increases its own smugness. And the same might be broadly applied to the picture. It’s a curious watch. There is wit here, Mylod holds court well enough, you’re never bored. But it feels similar to M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, in so much that it is always hyper-aware of its own silliness, and this facet is deemed strong enough to forgive inconsistencies and smudged politics.
I’m not one for guilty pleasures. Like what you want to like. But I got the distinct feeling while watching The Menu that I was breezily, fitfully enjoying a Bad Film.