The Menu (2022) Review
A DELECTABLE AND
DEVIOUS CINEMATIC DISH
While popular film genres such as action, horror, and comedy are the more dominant categories of feature film classifications, there are a plethora of subgenres out there that help grouping movies that can be pinpointed down into a specific presentation. Perhaps the most interesting one (and peculiar) category would have to be the ones found in the “Black Comedy” subgenre. Black comedy (or sometimes referred to as “Dark Comedy”) is a very niche and artistic motion picture genre that deals with subject matter (something taboo, dark, or controversial) and presenting it in a comically representation. In conjunction, black comedies are not to be confused with horror comedies (another niche subgenre), with narratives detailing a unique sense of humor and the willfulness of sometimes “pushing the envelope” in the macabre nuances in the plot and / or social commentary…thematically speaking. Dark comedies can be hard to find and not as commonplace in amongst such favorite / popular genres out there, but there are some prime examples out there, including 1964’s Dr. Strangelove, 1971’s Harold and Maude, 1988’s Heathers, 1996’s Fargo, 2000’s American Pyscho, and 2009’s Inglorious Basterds just to name a few. Now, Searchlight Pictures and director Mark Mylod present the latest film to be classified as a black comedy film endeavor with the release of the movie titled The Menu. Does this film have a savory taste within its “dark comedy” aesthetics or is it only a hollow project that can only be appreciated by people of an acquired palette? ￼
Tyler Ledford (Nicholas Hoult) is an amateur, yet committed foodie, who finally receives a chance to visit Hawthorn, an isolated island haute cuisine restaurant that is run and operated by renowned celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Joined by his friend, Margot Mills (Anya Taylor-Joy), Tyler preps for the experience he’s dreamed of, with a small group of others, including washed-up actor George Diaz (John Leguizamo), his personal assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero), food critic Lilian Bloom (Janet McTeer), her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), wealthy regulars Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light) Leibrandt, and financial business partners stooges Soren (Arturo Castro), Dave (Mark St. Cyr), and Bryce (Rob Yang), who are also ready for a culinary adventure. Arriving on the remote location, the guests enter Julian’s restaurant dominion, where he commands a team of skilled chefs and service staff, with Elsa (Hong Chau) watching over everything that transpires. As the meal service commences, Chef Slowik prepares exotic courses meant to tie into a special theme for the evening’s festivities, using his skill to trigger special / untapped emotions, which delights Tyler’s excitement. Margot, on the other hand, isn’t as interested in the eccentric food dishes nor in the unsettling ambiance, gradually understanding that something bigger is happening in Slowik’s kitchen; finding the famed chef focus on a plan he’s slow to reveals to his paying customers….one that exposes them all to their own faults, weaknesses, and insecurities.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Of course, I do love a wide variety of movies that span a large selection of genres and subgenres out there. That being said, a do have a few genres that I do favor more than others, including the action, comedy, and fantasy film genres out there. This, of course, brings up the subgenre of “black comedy” endeavors that (not to be confused African American comedy driven features) is somewhat of an elusive muse to me. Sure, I’ve seeing several pictures that have utilized (semi and / or fully) this particular form of storytelling, but I haven’t been the biggest fan of these dark comedy productions. That not to say that I discredit them or wave them off as second-rate movies, but it just isn’t my particular “cup of tea” ….if you will. I don’t know. There’s just something about them that I have a hard time of “getting myself” immersed in their story. Maybe it’s because of the darker elements that blend together with comedic flourishes. To me, the combination of such two very distinct genres don’t exactly mesh well together. I usually just find it a bit odd, especially since such polar opposites are usually at odds with each other. It’s all about finding balance and such balance between the two aspects can sometimes be a little bit distracting. Perhaps my personal favorite of such black comedies endeavors would have to be 1996’s Fargo and 2009’s Inglorious Basterds, which (to me) had the better balance of comedic levity and darker tones spread out in their presentation. In the end, while not exactly my personal favorite film genre to watch, I do have to appreciate the endurance of such a movie subgenre that, while cater to a particular crowd, still manages to produce some intriguing details on finding comedy within such dark situations…..or vice versa.
This brings me back to talking about The Menu, a 2022 film and the latest film to present a black comedy feature film. In truth, I really don’t remember hearing about this movie when it was first announced, for it somewhat “skipped through the cracks” of the internet movie new buzz. I think I actually first heard about the project sometime in the spring of 2022, a movie something about deranged master chef and how he serves food to suspicious guests. Plus, I remember hearing that actress Anya Taylor-Joy and actors Ralph Fiennes and Nicholas Hoult were going to be in the movie as well. It did sound like something interesting, but I didn’t give it much thought as I was a little bit more preoccupied by other movies of 2022 that were planning to come out in the next few months. In fact, I really didn’t see much advertising for The Menu. Not a whole lot marketing campaign. Heck, I can’t even recall seeing the film’s movie trailer during the “coming attractions” preview when I went out to my local movie theater. After that, I think it was around September or October, I began to hear a lot of reviewers and people across the internet talking about The Menu and how much they liked it. This “word of mouth” did eventually catch my interest in actually finally seeing The Menu, but, as far as I was aware, it actually never came to my movie theaters around me, which was disappointing. So, I was going to wait until the movie was going to be released (on digital or physical copy) to view and (eventually) review it. Surprisingly, I was able to catch the feature on HBO Max, which I did view on one of my day’s off from work. Sadly, though, with my busy schedule of work and my “back up” on film reviews to do, I had to keep pushing off my review for The Menu for several weeks. Now, with some free time, I’m finally able to share my personal thoughts on this movie. And what did I think of it? Well, I actually liked it. Despite some apparent problematic areas within the film’s narrative flow and overall execution substance, The Menu offers up a deliciously feature of dubious duplicity of one unhinged man’s master plan as well as giving some intriguing commentary on food critics in some great nuances within its story and characters. The movie is quite electrifying, with the feature up to the task of presenting a new slice of dark comedy….on a devilish cinematic dish.
The Menu is directed by Mark Mylod, whose previous directorial works include such episode directing from such TV series like Entourage, Game of Thrones, and Shameless. Given his background in mostly TV series directing (though he’s done several feature films), Mylod does make a unique step forward into the feature film category and produces his most ambitious and most engaging project to date. Interestingly, Mylod approaches The Menu, with the black comedy angle in mind by balancing the uncomfortableness and suspicious manner of the feature’s main storyline and charting a course that has a plethora of dark humor bits as well as some unexpected horror moments that build upon the feature’s tension and suspense. It definitely works throughout the movie as Mylod conveys the right amount of hair-raising scenes that stay up on the back of your neck and creates a sort of mystery in and out of the primary plot. As to be expected, the movie, just like in real life, no one is clear cut good or bad, with The Menu’s story breathing life into its characters, who are presented with such layered shades of grey. Mylod’s tactics of “peeling away” the particular individual characters in displaying them as flawed people, who have their own baggage. Plus, I felt that the usage of a culinary theme restaurant palette of patrons eating dinner and prepared by renowned popular chef that has become deranged by the “grind” of the art was sublime and definitely added a flavor (no pun intended) to the film’s proceedings. Thus, one should simply give credit to Mylod for direction and artistry in The Menu, which gives off plenty of style and nuances to the subgenre of which the narrative plays at part and a wonderful dark feature that has sparks of comedy sprinkled throughout.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect that The Menu presents in his narrative is found within its own commentary message. The script, which was penned by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, is quite sharp (something that I do appreciate nowadays) as the film’s story unfolds as a “slow burner” mindset context, which is always rewarding to see. This means that the narrative peels away at the tale being told in a way that feels satisfying, with Mylod implementing a suspenseful uneasiness that definitely keeps on building, which (again) harmonizes with the script. Back to my point, the script is a bit clever in its undertaking and clearly showcases that point throughout the entire film, which helps build upon Mylod’s direction and expressiveness in the film’s framework. This circles back to the commentary message of the feature, which gives insight into the power and wealth and how much that can effected / inflected upon the beauty of art. The powerful can easily “make or break” art, while (at the same time) can rapidly deplete the creativeness of artists as well, which the film mirrors in the descent of Slowik’s madness and his disdain towards some of his patron’s attitude and bravado. In addition, the script also takes a look at food critics and how they can sometimes be a little bit of pretentious and very much “full of themselves” to criticize art. Of course, that can be extrapolated toward everything piece of art (not just food). Heck, even towards movie review critics. So, is the movie holding up a reality mirror to everyone who thinks that are “experts” on such critiques and criticisms of art. I guess that’s a question for the philosophers out there. Nevertheless, how this is implemented into the feature’s plot is also quite interesting as it slowly comes into light as Slowik prepares new dishes for his master plan evening.
In the presentation category, The Menu is quite solid all the way around and definitely meets the industry standard of similar features of its endeavor. That’s not to say the movie “looks cheap” or anything like that, but the movie (as expected) focuses a lot more attention to detail within its characters rather the setting. That being said, the production quality on the movie looks great and definitely is a character unto itself in the film, with a very starch and modern-ish style vibe of the restaurant interiors of Slowik kitchen as well as the untouched / unsettling motif aspects of Hawthorn Island. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team, including Ethan Tobman (production design), Lindsey Moran (art direction), Gretchen Gattuso (set decoration), Amy Westcott (costume designs), should be praised for making the film’s background visual aesthetics setting come alive throughout the movie in a very real and organic way, yet still feeling a bit cinematic throughout its nuances. Speaking of cinematics, cinematographer Peter Deming does quite an impressive job in the film and helps create some of the more dramatic key moments that build upon the black comedy humors and several of the intense moments. Plus, a lot of the food plating scenes look great and looks fantastic in their presentation and how it is capture. So, kudos for Deming’s work on The Menu. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Stetson, delivers a very interesting musical composition to accompany the feature, with light flourishes to uneasy and intense bits that help stage the events throughout.
There were a few elements in The Menu’s undertaking that create several points of criticisms that hinders the movie from becoming flawless achievement in cinematic storytelling. How so? Well, for the most part, the feature’s pacing is a bit off at times, especially since the project is relatively on the short side. Clocking in at around 107 minutes (one hour and forty-seven minutes), The Menu is kept under the two hour run mark, which is good, but becomes problematic within how it tells its story. Mylod is good director (no doubt about that through his past endeavors), yet he somewhat struggles to find a proper rhythm within the narrative progression of the feature’s main thread. Basically, has a definite hook to its seedy psychological thriller and twisted plot, but lacks the finesse in a few areas, which comes at the expense of the feature’s pacing. Several parts vague and / or not fully addressed, which (in a nutshell) could be part of the narrative simplistic nature, with a larger emphasis on the “here and now” and not so much on the backstory development. Yet, it feels (at least to me) a bit weak in here and there throughout the movie as if there is little substance being made in the feature. Thus, the sluggish as several things unfold in The Menu happen in a very long and drawn out manner.
This is especially noticeable in other areas that make up the movie’s genetic make-up and it is presented as a whole cinematic endeavor. Several of the “big twists” were a bit predictable in my opinion. Not all of them were in this fashion as some “surprises” in the feature that Mylod staged quite well in how it is presented, yet there are a few that are bit formulaic to the touch and come off as a bit “meh”. Plus, I also felt like the movie could’ve been explained certain characters in a way that could’ve been expanded upon. As a sidenote, I think that this movie was sort of hyped by “word of mouth” a bit too much. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the movie, but I felt like that it wasn’t as incredible awesome as reviewers are give in. I was expecting to be “blown away” by the film’s ending. Yet, I felt like something was missing. I don’t know as it is sort of hard to describe. Maybe I was expecting a bit more depth within certain aspects, more insight into character motivations, or maybe some type of conclusive ending than what was presented. In truth, the movie is more tamed that what I was expecting. Naturally, I wasn’t expecting an absurd “gory” moments of blood and guts, but it’s quite tamed and dialed down than what I was expecting to see in such a movie that involved such erratic and unhinged behavior.
What helps bring such criticisms nuances into a more positive light is found in The Menu’s cast, which collectively brings together several familiar / recognizable acting talents together to the feature’s presentation. While the character themselves aren’t particularly deep or well-rounded enough to elect / warrant an incredible backstory or character arcs, but what helps make up for that is in the nuances that the actors and actresses bring to the proceedings. Interestingly, while I do usually mention the protagonist character first, I think that this film the so-called “villain” of the picture should be addressed if, with actor Ralph Fiennes playing a delicious twisted role in the character of Chef Julian Slowik. Known for his roles in The Constant Gardner, Schindler’s List, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Fiennes has most of them (not all) being cast in the role of a bad guy villain of which he is wonderful at and brings the necessary charisma and theatrical acting to pull it off with such vigorous and brilliant glee of villainy. This, of course, plays an importance piece in The Menu’s likeability, with Fiennes masterfully playing the character role of Master Chef Julian Slowik; a role that he was almost born to play. As Slowik, Fiennes definitely imbues his performance with an unyielding and unhinged man, whose stern and deranged humor plays a part in the feature’s genetic make-up. As an actor, Fiennes beautifully captures Slowik that is caught in struggles and torment through his calm posture, especially in his facial expression, only sparking a twitch of unnerve when he begins to clash with Taylor-Joy’s Margot character, a person who doesn’t belong at Hawthorne Island. It’s through this rigid portrayal of a man clearly “on the deep end” is deliciously fun for Fiennes to play. Perhaps the only downside to his character is that some of the backstory development is a bit “muddy” and “vague”. I was sort of expectation a lot of Slowik’s past, especially during the film’s third act, by showing his sort of “descent of madness” if you will. However, it never came. Beyond that, I think that Fiennes was great in his character, finding Julian Slowik to be a terrifying and somewhat fascinating character portrayal, which showcases the unhinged manner of a man pushed too far.
At the center of the movie, who acts as the primary main protagonist of the feature is the character of Margot Mills, who is played by actress Anya Taylor-Joy. Known for her roles in The New Mutants, The Queen’s Gambit, and Emma., Taylor-Joy has certain starred to amass a new / career for herself by appearing more and more in high profile endeavors, especially ones that make her the lead role. She’s a great up and coming actress and her involvement in The Menu is indeed a welcome one. Much like Fiennes in the movie, Taylor-Joy is just as equally skilled, equipped and ready to go, showcasing her talent whenever she’s on-screen and acts (to us) as the novice newbie to this world of fine dining cuisine of critique and etiquette. Like a lot of her characters she’s played in the past, Taylor-Joy gives Margot a sense of witty sarcasm (a trait that the actress gives off wonderfully) and imbues the character with heightened awareness of how everyone / everything is a bit ridiculous of the circumstance and how the bizarre strangeness and severity of what’s going on when things that to become odd and go awry. She’s also quite good and going “tit or tat” with her dialogue exchanges with Fiennes’s Slowik. Their scenes together are quite magnetic in a totally platonic manner and generates some of the most memorable character sequences of the film. There is some character backstory delivered about Margot’s past and, while it could’ve been easily expanded upon, I felt that Taylor-Joy was indeed the right actress to play the character in the feature and did indeed produce a great character nuance throughout.
With the movie heavily focuses on both Slowik and Margot, much of the remaining players in the film are moved to the more supporting roles, yet there are two that particularly standout in their performances. First, actor Nicholas Hoult (Tolkien and X-Men: First Class) does somewhat humorous performance as Tyler Ledford, a seemingly nice yet overexcited novice foodie amateur. The character is so caught up in the whole “experience” of Slowik’s nuances and profession that he’s blissfully unaware of all the things that are going on around, which Hoult does a good job at portraying. There isn’t much depth to him (something that I was kind of expecting), but, for what it’s worth, I did like Hoult does a great character nuance within Tyler, especially since its own of the personas that Mylod is trying to convey in the film’s commentary. The other standout supporting character in the feature would be Elsa, Slowik’s Maître d’hôtel personnel, and who is played by actress Hong Chau (Homecoming and Downsizing). She definitely has an interesting performance, one that helps blend that “dark humor” throughout the movie and quickly showcases the “turn” of when things to start to take a turn for the worst in her attitude towards the guests. Like Hoult, Chau’s character doesn’t offer much in the way of depth, but more of the suspenseful / mystery nuances that surrounds the film’s main unsettling plot.
The rest of the cast, including actor John Leguizamo (Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!) as has-been actor George Diaz, actress Aimee Carrero (Elena of Avalor and Dylan) as Diaz’s personal assistant Felicity, actress Janet McTeer (Ozark and Me Before You) as food critic Lillian Bloom, actor Paul Adelstein (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce and Prison Break) as Lillian’s editor Ted, actor Reed Birney (House of Cards and 1865) and actress Judith Light (Transparent and tick….tick…BOOM!) as well-off regulators Richard and Anne Leibrandt, and actors Arturo Castro (Broad City and Bill Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), Mark St. Cyr (Marshall and High School: The Musical: The Series), and Rob Yang (American Rust and Succession) as financial business partners underlings Soren, Dave, and Bryce, are delegated to minor supporting characters in the film. Most of these characters are positioned to be rather one-dimensional with their initial personalities being their big “shtick” throughout The Menu. While this may be a distraction due to their lack of character depth, the overall context of these particular individuals are more nuanced, which, given the nature of the film, is understandable. Thus, despite their limited development, the acting talent who portrays these characters are solid across the board.
While dragged into an evening at premiere culinary chef master’s restaurant, Margot Mills soon quickly finds herself becoming strangely aware of the dangers and suspicions that the experience of Chef Julian Slowik’s kitchen dominion is not what it seems to be in the movie The Menu. Director Mark Mylod’s latest film tackles the black comedy format for his endeavor, delving into the bizarre and dementated manner of a man pushed too far and the cynical patrons that he serves, who are too arrogant and / blind to see the truth in front of them. While the feature does lack some depth within a few areas as well being slightly tamed here and there, the movie still comes out on top as darkly brilliant pictures, especially from Mylod’s direction, an interesting commentary message, a satisfying setup / payoff, sharp dialogue moments and scenes, a cinematic (and unnerving) presentation, and some great character nuances throughout the solid cast, especially in Fiennes and Taylor-Joy. Personally, I liked this movie. As mentioned previously, I do have a hard time of getting into such black comedy endeavors, but I did find this particular project to be kind of fun to watch. I do believe that it was a little bit hyped up more that many are calling it to be (a bit overhyped), with such details of substance and “shock and awe” moments lacking, but I find the movie’s darker and levity scenes interesting and entertaining, with such surprises and degrees of building tension through suspense and character interaction. Yet, like the subgenre the movie derives from, the film isn’t for everyone. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is both a “recommended” one as well as a “iffy choice” as some will like it, while others might find the film’s dark comedy aspect a bit off-putting. It is indeed an interesting movie, but not everyone’s “cup of tea”. In the end, The Menu is a delectable and devious black comedy that mixes suspenseful thriller, unsettling and willfulness commentary and aspects into a movie that (surprisingly) finds humor within darkness and darkness within its humor. It’s an experience that many will never soon forget.
4.2 Out of 5 (Recommended / Iffy Choice)
Released On: November 18th, 2023
Reviewed On: February 8th, 2023
The Menu is 106 minutes long and is rated R for strong/disturbing violent content, language throughout and some sexual references