By RYAN COLEMAN
“We’re all gonna die tonight, right?” Ralph Fiennes booms to his kitchen staff, as a dozen rich people look on with terror in their eyes. The staff chants back in unison: “Yes, Chef!”
THE MENU, directed by Mark Mylod (Game of Thrones), is a sleek, starry and witty new film from Searchlight Pictures. The distributor has had a good go of it in the horror department in recent years, having released films such as Ready or Not, The Night House and the straight-to-Hulu cannibal flick, Fresh. THE MENU carries over Adam McKay as a producer from that last film, adding Will Ferrell (through their recently dissolved production company Gary Sanchez Productions) and longtime McKay collaborator Betsy Koch. You don’t feel their influence at first, but as the tension-cutting quips give way to full-on gags in McKay’s signature groan-inducing, eye-rolling, smug-to-glib style, they’re almost all you feel.
Aside from some stupid jokes and a good deal of atonality (Is it camp? Are they playing it straight?), THE MENU is a perfect Saturday night date movie for the slightly elevated crowd that doesn’t just want blood, guts and boobs. Our protagonist is Margot Mills (Anya Taylor-Joy), a willowy no-nonsense redhead in a leather jacket who’s come as Tyler’s (Nicolas Hoult) date to Hawthorne, an uber-luxury, invitation-only, $1250-a-plate restaurant on a private island. When the couple approach Hawthorne’s maître’D and general taskmaster Elsa (Hong Chau) to check in, she addresses Margot as “Miss Westervelt,” forcing Tyler to correct her that, his original date (read, first choice) couldn’t make it, much to Margot’s embarrassment. We know we’re off to a rocky start with this couple, but Elsa seems strangely perturbed by the guest list update as well.
Tyler is some sort of banker or tech bro, always on his phone and never looking his date in the eye or asking how she is. Nicholas Hoult has always been good at playing assholes; In THE MENU, he evinces genuine passion for one thing: Hawthorne’s head chef, the legendary Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Slowik, simply called “Chef” by his devoted kitchen staff and legion of acolytes, is one of those classic pretentious types that people love to make fun of. His cuisine includes smears of anchovy foam, tomato soup the consistency of blown glass and bread plates without bread (an actual dinner course in the film) – that kind of thing. Exactly what THE MENU is satirizing isn’t so clear, as high-concept food is made fun of until it’s sympathetically viewed as the defensive pretensions of everyday burger flippers whose ambitions get the best of them. The gourmands who patronize these establishments are also mocked for their gullibility and then regarded compassionately as a people so estranged from the simple joys of life that they can only be pitied.
But never mind that, it’s best to keep rolling with THE MENU’s punches. Margot, Tyler and about ten others fill up the dining room at Hawthorne. They include a bevy of fantastic, perpetually supporting players like Janet McTeer as an imperious food critic, John Leguizamo as a chintzy, washed-up movie star and Judith Light as the long-suffering wife of an adulterous millionaire. Margot seems to know the millionaire but is afraid to show it, while Chef Slowik seems to know Margot and slowly loses his ability to hide it as the night progresses.
Over seven increasingly bizarre courses with names like “The Mess,” “Man’s Folly” and “Fallen Angel,” the meal of everyone’s dreams becomes a living nightmare. During the fourth course, a sous chef (Adam Aalderks) shoots himself in front of the crowd and falls backward onto a sheet of butcher paper bordered by bunched herbs. When the diners realize they might not be getting out alive. It’s up to Margot, who Chef belligerently insists isn’t really who she says she is, to ferret out the truth of Hawthorne and save her own life.
THE MENU is sort of like the fall 2022 edition of a kind of film we now basically only get one of per season: a studio-backed horror film based on an original story that gets a theatrical release. That may sound like a hyper-specific category of films, but going back to the ‘90s and even through the 2000s, films like this used to be released three a weekend. THE MENU will not win awards, go down in any best-of lists or inspire any precocious future filmmakers to want to make their own THE MENU. Nevertheless, it’s fun, adheres to a solid concept, features several great performances from of-the-moment stars and character actors and has a satisfactory amount of blood and guts. In other words, it’s mid.
Still, it is a perfect film to see in theaters. It’s the quintessence of the theatrical horror experience: you go, you get riled up, you yell, “Eww!!!” with your friends at the gross bits, laugh at the funny parts and forget about it by the next morning.