A culinary thriller-slash-black comedy with bite, this Ralph Fiennes- and Anya Taylor-Joy-starring cinematic dish is savage, savvy and slickly satisfying.
November 23, 2022
Whichever new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory adaptations hit screens in the future — beyond the already-slated Timothée Chalamet-starring origin story and Netflix's animated plans to whatever else might pop up — no one need cast Ralph Fiennes as Willy Wonka. The Menu has already done so, and fantastically, albeit not in name but in tour-guiding, court-holding, string-pulling and monologue-delivering spirit. In this slickly appetising culinary thriller, the ever-versatile No Time to Die, The King's Man and The Forgiven star plays Julian Slowik, the head chef at the most exclusive of exclusive restaurants: the fictional Hawthorne, which adorns its own private island, is pickier than a fussy eater about its guest list, and comes with a cult-esque crew of kitchen and hospitality staff. And at the eatery's latest sought-after sitting, Slowik takes his patrons through an unforgettable edible adventure, unfurling surprises with every meticulously selected, prepared, served and introduced degustation course.
Getting "yes chef" bellowed his way by Slowik's underlings on command, Fiennes is a sinister delight in this vicious and delicious flick. With his character terrorising staff and customers alike, but similarly trapped with his employees in the hospo grind, Fiennes is also visibly having a ball in an entertainingly slippery role. He plays the part with the instant presence to make a room of well-paying patrons snap to attention just because he's there, and his facial expressions — his eyes in particular — are a masterclass in passive malevolence. There's a cruel streak in Slowik, as there is in the movie, but The Menu is a black, bleak, vengeful comedy as well. Director Mark Mylod (What's Your Number?) and writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy (The Onion) know the best thing to eat, aka the rich, and turn their fine-dining factory into a savage, savvy and scathingly amusing satire about coveting $1250-a-head meals but letting the workers behind them slice, steam, stir and sweat through upscale kitchen drudgery.
Babbling snootily about mouth-feel before even getting to Hawthorne by boat, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult, The Great) doesn't spare a passing thought for the restaurant's workers. A self-confessed foodie who can't abide by the eatery's no-photography rule for a single course, he's in fanboy heaven after finally scoring a booking — and doesn't his companion Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy, Amsterdam) know it. She's less enthused, and her lack of fawning over her surroundings, Slowik, each plate and the theatre of it all rankles her date. She's the least-excited diner of the evening's entire list, in fact, which also spans status-chasing finance bros (The Terminal List's Arturo Castro, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series' Mark St Cyr and The Now's Rob Yang), a cashed-up couple (Mass' Reed Birney and Julia's Judith Light) who attend regularly, an arrogant food critic (Janet McTeer, Ozark) and her editor (Paul Adelstein, The Greatest Beer Run Ever), and a movie star (John Leguizamo, Encanto) with his assistant (Aimee Carrero, Spirited).
Mylod and Tracy share Succession on their recent resumes — the former directing 13 episodes, the latter writing two — which has them prepped for exactly this kind of dressing down; if you're going to boil down the one percent to size, there's no better cooking school. That background shows not just in the cleaver-sharp script or dedicated attention to glossy detail, but in the commitment to bite hard into a spate of targets. Where 2022 TV sensation The Bear carved up toxic kitchen life by displaying its chaos to a so-stressful-and-accurate-it-feels-like-you're-there degree, The Menu shreds and skewers by going after money and the performative culinary antics it can bring. That's part of what makes Fiennes' role so compelling, and his portrayal with it: the film's audience can see the pull that Slowik has over his staff and customers, and the screenplay spells out his professional misdeeds, but they also know what enables such behaviour.
As breadless bread courses come Tyler, Margot and company's way, plus other just-as-precisely curated dishes — the feature is structured around Slowik's titular array — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory proves just one easy influence for The Menu. The Game, David Fincher's twisty quarter-century-old thriller, is another, with Slowik and his offsiders, warden-like restaurant manager Elsa (Hong Chau, Homecoming) included, pushing and prodding Hawthorne's latest intake unbeknownst to them. Yet another source of flavour springs from 1962 surrealist gem The Exterminating Angel, about guests at a lavish party who aren't permitted to leave. There's nothing subtle in The Menu's borrowings and nods, or about The Menu overall, but that doesn't make its class warfare-fuelled cinematic feast any less satisfying.
In the hospitality realm, this cutting morsel is diligent in bringing together recognisable ingredients, too; satires, even delectably brutal ones, can't be vague. The Menu's audience can give some of their thanks to Ethan Tobman's (Pam & Tommy) production design and Lindsey Moran's (Animal Kingdom) art direction, providing Hawthorne with the style and sheen of Magnus Nilsson's shuttered Fäviken in Sweden, Ferran Adrià's El Bulli in Spain and René Redzepi's Danish drawcard Noma. From San Francisco's Atelier Crenn, Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn acted as the movie's chief technical consultant, overseeing dishes cooked by her IRL culinary partner Juan Contreras. Like The Bear, this vision of making and plating cuisine feels so authentic that you can imagine it appearing on Chef's Table — and, continuing the flick's credentials, that show's creator David Gelb is The Menu's second unit director.
All the technical proficiency anyone can amass means little if the end result isn't mouthwatering, though, but that's a problem The Menu doesn't have. Also, an extravagant meal can wow the tastebuds but dull the joy if it doesn't feel like an experience, which isn't a struggle The Menu faces, either. As tense as a pressure cooker, as smooth as a squirt of the finest olive oil and bubbling with high-quality wares — Taylor-Joy and Chau join Fiennes among the cast's standouts — Mylod's film perfects a necessary balancing act as well. Amid silky lensing by cinematographer Peter Deming (Twin Peaks season three), rhythmic splicing by editor Christopher Tellefsen (The Many Saints of Newark) and a nerve-rattling score by composer Colin Stetson (Color Out of Space), The Menu knows the difference between the artistry that restaurants like Hawthorne champion and cultivate, and the woes, disparities and oppressions of the culinary world. One it still appreciates, the other it eviscerates, and battle between the two it scorches and sears, right down to the blunt but gratifying ending.