Director Mark Mylod’s last feature film credit is, incredibly, the rather sexist and misogynistic Chris Evans/Anna Faris “rom-com” What’s Your Number in 2011. Since then, though, he has been directing for TV shows like Game of Thrones, Shameless, and Succession, and now he’s roaring back into features with The Menu, a finely honed black comedy, equal parts class satire and social thriller set in the world’s most exclusive restaurant.
There are two types of people in the world: takers and givers. Or, in the parlance of The Menu, “eaters” and “servers”. At Hawthorne, the brainchild of celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), twelve people are taken to an island, seated in a modern dining room that overlooks both the ocean and the kitchen, and served a molecular gastronomy menu of fine foams, essences, and ideas of food. On this night, the diners—the eaters—include a Hollywood star and his put-upon assistant, a triad of finance bros, a wealthy couple, a famous food critic and her editor, a young couple, and Julian’s mother.
The Menu is a deeply weird film. Whatever you think it is going in, it isn’t quite that. It’s not entirely a class satire, it’s not really a horror movie, it’s best described as a black comedy but even that doesn’t cover all the bases. That it works is a testament to everyone involved, from Mylod’s precise control to Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s carefully balanced script, to the perfectly calibrated performances of everyone on screen. Initially, the diners have the hardest task, playing broad archetypes of terrible people, from John Leguizamo’s perfect “look at me but don’t look at me” celebrity routine, to the casual entitlement of older couple Anne (Judith Light) and Richard (Reed Birney), to the immediate awfulness of the finance bros (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, and Rob Yang). Equally awful is Tyler (Nicholas Hoult, one of contemporary cinema’s best Silly Boys), a foodie who photographs every plate and worships Julian Slowik like others worship athletes and actors.
Tyler has an early monologue defending chefs as objects worthy of admiration, though, because they “work on the edge of the abyss”, as cuisine combines life and death, slaughter and sustenance. It’s a great monologue, and a great way to think about food and its preparation, but UGH, Tyler is the WORST. That monologue is a real “the worst person you know made a good point” moment. Not quite fitting in with the others, and DEFINITELY too good for Tyler, is his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), whom Tyler describes as “the coolest girl in the room”. It is true, Margot doesn’t gel with the Hawthorne clientele. It’s not so much that she is cool, though, it's more that she clearly isn’t into the whole thing like the others, laughing disbelievingly at the yacht transporting them to the island restaurant, and saying she’d rather just eat an oyster than slurp on the idea of an oyster in the form of foam.
Tyler is predictably condescending—WORST—but as the night wears on and the dinner gets weirder, it’s clear Margot is operating from a different playbook than the others. It’s not that she doesn’t display entitlement, she does. But it’s a different kind of entitlement, not so much a demand for the finest and best in all things, but just for her preference of things. The binary eater/server divide isn’t as defined in Margot’s orbit, as she seems to exist in an in between space, and she throws Julian off his rhythm in the kitchen, upsetting the delicate balance of his meal, which has been calculated to the last milligram of salt and exact positions of the dining chairs. She also upsets the hostess, Elsa (Hong Chau, in her second great performance this year following The Whale), who grows more agitated the more Margot resists the rhythm of Julian’s meal. Margot doesn’t fit, and it slowly drives everyone mad(der).
There are some scathingly good jokes in The Menu—it contains one of the best student loan jokes I’ve ever heard—but at heart is an extremely committed food allegory about entitlement, reward, and polarization. Julian runs his kitchen with a drill sergeant’s precision, but Margot doesn’t fall in line, not to be rude or snub him, but simply because she doesn’t want to participate. The Menu posits that our increasingly polarized society is made worse by an entitled class that demands but never offers, and a service class whose resentment is in danger of, er, boiling over in explosive ways. (I really tried to get through this without making a bunch of food puns.) Margot, meanwhile, is the middle ground, not “both sides” but a neither-nor, not eater or server, just a person in want of dinner.
Julian sees the world in a very specific way, while Margot offers an alternative, where life is not about either eating or serving, but the give and take between people making a connection. You cannot understand another person without that flexibility, but Julian, after a lifetime of dealing with Tylers, has lost his connection to his customers. The moment they became eaters they became enemies, and while class resentment is certainly not unjustified in our era of gross wealth inequality, Margot is a reminder that these things are fluid, that sometimes someone who looks like an eater might be a server. You never know, unless you bother to know, but if you’re dictating all the terms, like Julian, how can you find out? The Menu is twisty, turny, funny, a little bit demented, and, even with high expectations, more satisfying than expected. It is, as they say, the whole enchilada.
The Menu is exclusively in theaters from November 18, 2022.