Review: A true mixed bag of ideas and food for thought, Mark Mylod’s “The Menu” excels with winking characters and great visual design. The movie struggles to establish much beyond its own genre beats, but that doesn’t take away much from the crowd-pleasing journey that it goes on.
“The Menu” is a swing for the fences. Mark Mylod’s half satire, half thriller hit HBO Max earlier this week and it’s given me some time to reflect on one of the odder movie theater experiences I had in 2022. The movie’s concept felt refreshingly new, so it was just a matter of execution. Sprinkle in two actors with high Q ratings in Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes and I was sure to be there opening night.
Yet when I look back on that initial viewing, I can’t help but feel hungrier for a film with a bit more to chew on beyond the shallow ideas of eating the rich (literally) and calling out your critics. Maybe I took the latter too personally, but it felt like a story that was out over its skis. There was a lot to like about the R-rated genre flick that managed to get greenlit by Searchlight Pictures despite its satirical premise and slim margin for error, but “The Menu” also isn’t without its own flaws.
The movie centers on a group of wealthy (and hungry) guests traveling to the remote restaurant of Hawthorne. The dinner is as much an experience as it is a way to satisfy your hunger. One couple that embarks on the evening is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (the perfectly casted Nicholas Hoult). When events escalate at the hands of maniacally driven and infamously difficult celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), the night turns from promising to deadly.
There’s quite a bit to unpack in Mylod’s latest effort, mainly in the way it attempts to comment on cultural showiness and materialism in our current generation. The film was produced by Adam McKay – and his fingerprints are all over this script and the subject matter. But much like “Don’t Look Up,” some of the execution in this satire is too silly and off to land the necessary punch that it’s aiming for.
The characters are generally fun and engaging, while also being clear representations of the smarmy businesspeople that populate the world today. John Leguizamo is the standout of the bunch, continuing his string of hot releases with “Violent Night” and others. Hong Chau also dazzles as the head waitress Elsa. There’s a solid group of people working around the edges of “The Menu” – which saves it from being a bloated misfire due to a poor script that lacks detail beyond its shocking twists and turns.
After being immersed in the remote island that Hawthorne sits upon, the dinner begins and the night turns for the worst. But once the chaos ensues, it becomes hollow noise. It relies so heavily on Anya Taylor-Joy’s screen presence (which is wonderful) to carry scenes with little spark or flare. Her journey throughout the compound is dull, and her unfurling relationship with Nicholas Hoult becomes a poorly executed mess that had me confused when it hit the forefront of the film.
But perhaps the most scintillating moments of “The Menu” come during its truly bizarre third act, which I could only think of “Midsommar” while watching. Its parallels are abundant, but it’s made much more palatable for a general audience here and the final climax is sure to be divisive among viewers. This particular viewer didn’t have a hard time seeing right through the movie’s obvious attempt to create a spectacular and uneasy stir of emotions amongst its audiences, and while I applaud its attempt to be bold and original, it doesn’t make for an entirely satisfying ending.
Maybe I’m just not the right audience for satire at this point. I’ve made the argument in the past that because the real world we live in is so chaotic and ridiculous at this point, I don’t need a zanier and more ridiculous version of it. I thought maybe this was the problem with “Don’t Look Up” as well – that it was so obviously riffing on something that was already hard to stomach that it didn’t make the film any fun or engaging.
But I can still imagine viewers at home firing up “The Menu” and having a blast. It has stars, it has action and violence, and it has a handful of cool set pieces and laughs. It didn’t land quite as highly for me, but the crowd that I saw it with seemed to take in everything Mark Mylod and co. were offering. Its chances at Oscars season seem to have dwindled beyond Fiennes and Taylor-Joy, which makes sense considering the film came and went without generating the buzz it needed to coming out of auditoriums.
“The Menu” is a muddy film – one that will surely be divisive as it gets into the hands of more and more viewers. Even with a handful of questionable choices within its script, the performances and set design carry enough weight to push it past the finish line. But for a film trying to be so much more and make you feel emotion and empathy, I struggled to connect with it.