“The Menu” is about a bunch of rich, pompous foodies who spend $1,250 each to have dinner at the world’s most exclusive restaurant, The Hawthorn. The place is on its own island, lorded over by Chef Slowik (Fiennes), who’s known for preparing the kind of pretentious meals where every course involves items plated with tweezers. He’s surrounded in his kitchen by a crew of obedient sous chefs and other personnel who respond like cult members to the commands he issues like a drill sergeant.
Margot (Taylor-Joy) is there as the date of Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a gastronomic fanboy who can’t believe he’ll finally be in the chef’s presence and eating his food. The rest of the guests include a fading movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant (Aimee Carrero), a middle-aged couple (Judith Light and Reed Birney), three silicon valley bros (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr), and a famed food critic (Janet McTeer) who helped the chef years ago by writing a very positive review, and her editor (Paul Adelstein). Invited guests all, except one, they brim with arrogance and privilege.
Each sequence in the movie begins with the chef explaining — in grandiose, pretentious, almost patronizing terms — what each course will consist of, and the story behind them. He tells his guests they shouldn’t eat, they should taste. After all, he’s not preparing food, he’s creating art. Everything seems to be going along fine until the third course, when the entire experience goes off the rails.
As Margot, Taylor-Joy gets some of the best lines from screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy (when told how much the meal costs, she asks, “What are we eating, a Rolex?”). When we first see her, she looks like a made-up mannequin, but as the plot plays out, she becomes the audience surrogate and we see her in whole new light.
As the chef, Fiennes follows a long tradition of strong villains who never raise their voice or overact any situation. Characters like his are much scarier when they speak in even tones. It helps when there’s an assistant like Elsa, played by Hong Chau, whose work I liked in the movie “Driveways” (my review is here) and the limited Prime Video series “Homecoming.” As the the most passive-aggressive hostess in screen history, she’s a force to be reckoned with who, like her boss, doesn’t have to yell to get everyone’s attention.
Director Mark Mylod (who helmed several episodes of “Succession,” “Game Of Thrones,” and “Shameless”) ramps up the suspense without revealing much of anything about the back stories of the characters, adding to the mystery of the motives behind each development. Credit must also go to production designer Ethan Tobman for his sets and cinematographer Peter Deming for capturing the food so stunningly.
As a black comedy, “The Menu” contains tasty morsels of wicked commentary on the kind of one-percenters who would visit The Hawthorn, as well as the super-foodies who swoon when they’re served items like “charred milk lace” with a side of foam.
I give “The Menu” an 8 out of 10, with a caveat: you’re unlikely to want to go out to a big meal after watching it.