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The Menu Review: Wickedly Delicious

  • An ingeniously clever horror-comedy
  • Merciless satire of the elite
  • Surprisingly appetizing, all things considered
  • Maybe not scary enough for some tastes?

"The Menu," directed by Mark Mylod from a screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy that placed on the 2019 Black List, was my favorite film of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. That's a welcome surprise, considering the festival also featured great new movies from Steven Spielberg, Rian Johnson, and Jordan Peele among others. I have no clue if this thing is going to be a hit in theaters; it might be too grotesque to become a traditional awards season contender while also not quite enough of a typical horror film to be a sure thing at the box office. Those who see it and love it, however, are sure to want to tell all their friends about it.

Honestly, you might not want to know any more about this movie before seeing it — I've already told you that it's great, and it's the sort of movie that's likely best to go in cold for. Even the full trailer might arguably reveal too much, though thankfully there are enough twists beyond what the trailer shows to keep you on your toes. The rest of this review will avoid spoilers beyond what's been shown in the trailer, but fair warning: If you're sold on "The Menu" already, you might not want to read any further in this review until after you've seen the film.

A hilarious eat the rich satire

"The Menu" joins the Cannes Palme D'or winner "Triangle of Sadness" and the "Knives Out" sequel "Glass Onion" in a 2022 mini-trend of satires about rich people stuck together in isolation on an island. In this case, the island is Hawthorne, home to a high-end restaurant owned by Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) as well as all the farms and resources needed to procure the food for its fine dishes. The 12 guests dining at Hawthorne in the film represent a wide cross-section of the one percent: actors, athletes, food critics, and finance bros.

Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the odd one out in this crowd as a woman from a working class background being treated to this exclusive meal by her date Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), an obsessive foodie who's also unusual in being the only one to be genuinely into Chef Slowik's high-concept courses and figuring out the "story" of the night. Of course, in his worship of the Chef, he misses the soon-obvious point of the night's meal: The Chef and the restaurant staff taking their revenge against their customers.

Though some speculated as such from the trailer's images of cooks hunting people in the woods and descriptions of "surprise" meals, "The Menu" is refreshingly not another cannibalism-themed movie. It's very much got an "eat the rich" attitude, and you could compare the characters of Chef Slowik and his maître d' Elsa (a hilarious, scene-stealing Hong Chau) to Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, but the punishments and manipulations here are far more creative than just literally eating people. One of the film's best running gags is the presentation of each "course" like they were an episode of "Chef's Table."

Much of the creative team responsible for "The Menu" previously worked together on HBO's "Succession," including director Mark Mylod, producer Adam McKay, and writer Will Tracy. The film's other writer, Seth Reiss, comes from The Onion. These are the perfect people to handle this wildly entertaining satire, and the ensemble of actors they've assembled treat the material deliciously. Originally written in 2019 but subsequently given rewrites to cheekily address the struggles of restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, "The Menu" works as the sort of single-location film that's become increasingly efficient to make since 2020, but its expert usage of its setting feels far more cinematic than many of its more stage-like indie peers.

Heart at the center of a twisted concoction

For the most part, "The Menu" is the sort of horror movie where there are no real "good guys," and the viewer is mostly rooting for the carnage that ensues rather than being scared of it. The moments where fear genuinely sets in are when the relatively sympathetic restaurant workers become collateral damage in the Chef's big plot, as well as those where the one fully sympathetic protagonist Margot is in peril.

Margot's presence was not part of the Chef's plan, and she struggles having to navigate the suspicions others have about her as well as figuring out where she fits between the givers and the takers. The back and forth between Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy is the source of the film's most compelling character development and is possibly its greatest strength overall. There is a sadness in both of their stories. The Chef is still clearly a villain, but he's a weirdly likable one despite his obviously monstrous behavior.

Margot, on the other hand is easy to root for. While horror fans are likely to predict her being the "final girl," they will still be left guessing how she's going to possibly survive the evening (take three guesses; I can't possibly imagine you getting the answer right without seeing it). Margot and the Chef's character arcs offer some of the story's most meaningful twists, adding a little bit of genuine pathos amidst a film that mostly succeeds as one big hilarious lark.

"The Menu" targets the culture and pretentious of the fine dining world, but it's one I expect foodies to appreciate even when it's making fun of them (hopefully not missing the point as much as Tyler does in the movie). The final courses of Chef Slowik's meal solidify "The Menu" as sure to be mentioned alongside the likes of "Pig" and "Ratatouille" in the lists of the best movies about what food means to people. For those that can vibe with its twisted taste, it's easily among the best new films to hit theaters this year.

"The Menu" opens in theaters on Friday, November 18.