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‘The Menu’ is colorful, half-baked concoction of pointed, perfunctory satire

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ANGELA BI | STAFF

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NOVEMBER 21, 2022

Grade: 3.0/5.0

For a film premised upon skewering the rich, “The Menu” only succeeds in crisping the surfaces of its elite subjects when one takes a closer look. The picture begins as a precise, droll commentary on the needless lavishness of haute cuisine before skidding into broad critiques of cultural critics, patriarchal structures and the rich. But in a year when Ruben Östlund’s “Triangle of Sadness” — another film depicting the ultra rich gorging themselves on a luxury escapade — offers a similar confection, “The Menu,” by comparison, feels risk-averse. It’s a thriller that ties up any and all loose ends, leaving little to chew on afterward, and a black comedy that finds itself increasingly light on laughs due to the perfunctory treatment of its thematic concerns. Östlund’s work, in comparison, speaks more acutely to the liminal Marxist potential of our current era, coloring outside of the lines to concoct a work with more meat on the bone. 

“The Menu” is helmed by Mark Mylod, who is known for directing several episodes of “Succession” — a show that is part Shakespearean drama, part acerbic wealth satire. However, the probing richness of Jesse Armstrong’s series doesn’t quite translate to this film.

In “The Menu,” a group of twelve travel to a secluded island to dine at Hawthorne, an ornate restaurant run by renowned chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). This includes attendees such as Slowik-obsessed Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his plus-one Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose working-class background separates her from the other elite guests — each of whom have paid $1,200 for an evening of Slowik’s exercises in molecular gastronomy. Other invitees to the island include a myriad of familiar types: A food critic whose words drip with glaring pretension (Janet McTeer), a trio of finance bros with questionable smarts and tastes (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr) and an aging movie star looking to make a comeback with a travel cooking show (John Leguizamo).

The evening starts off innocuous enough, even as Slowik hints of the morbid fate that is yet to befall the guests. One of the early courses, a breadless bread plate, is bestowed upon them with the intention of giving the uber rich a taste of their own medicine. But the display, as clever as it is, additionally speaks to the picture’s regrettably shallow examination of class struggle. It also annoys Margot to no end, who is ironically left both unimpressed by the pretentiousness of Slowik’s menu and yearning for an all-American cheeseburger. Gradually, Slowik spells out his explicit morbid intentions, as the rest of the visitors, despite themselves, remain fastened to his caustic contempt that farcically castigates their very existence. 

As “The Menu” unravels, its self-contained straightforwardness comes into clearer view, with the film’s foundations coming apart at its seams. The inherent hypocrisy of Slowik isn’t interrogated at all — his motivations are taken at face value, as assumed because of his working class beginnings. Taylor-Joy is serviceable, but her character functions as little more than an audience proxy, portraying skepticism and disaffection so viewers aren’t totally alienated from the film’s cast. The tying together of these two characters presents a stimulating promise of intricate commentary on class solidarity, but ends up feeling hackneyed at best. The picture is more concerned with leaving no loose plot threads than it is with fleshing character motives out with anything resembling fullness or tangibility.

Still, “The Menu” remains absorbing enough, even if it is lacking in provocation. Hong Chau is a notable stand-out as Slowik’s maître d’, with every line of hers as tantalizingly delicious as the tortillas she extols. Fiennes garners laughs with a performance that amounts to a heightened, mordant version of his role as a hotel concierge in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Hoult is delectable as a single-minded Slowik fanatic whose naivete is matched by a paradoxical penchant for the fine dining experience. It is through Hoult’s character that the picture mines its most effective satire — that of the culinary industry. 

Notwithstanding these high points, Mylod’s film works more as a tawdry, frivolous genre exercise than it does as a work of substance, despite its austere visual composition suggesting the sheen of a prestige drama. But while “The Menu” may be little more than a cursory culinary experience at its core, it’s certainly tempting enough to enjoy along the way.

Contact Hafsah Abbasi at 

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NOVEMBER 21, 2022