‘The Menu’ TIFF Review – This Culinary Horror-Comedy Serves up Sophisticated, Stylish, but Unsatiating Satire

Director Mark Mylod and writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy carefully construct a multi-course fine dining tasting menu of satirical delights and frights in The Menu. While the sophisticated and dry horror-comedy tantalizes with a feast for the senses and a compelling ensemble cast, The Menu’s satire lacks bite.

Obsessed foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) finally secured a coveted spot at the exclusive Hawthorne Island dining experience run by prestigious Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The limited seating gets filled by billionaires, renowned food critics, and actors that don’t even bat an eye at the hefty price tag for haute cuisine. But then Tyler swaps in Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) as his last-minute plus one, creating a slight hiccup in the carefully curated menu for the evening. Only Margot seems capable of seeing beneath Chef’s pomp and circumstance to recognize a far more insidious game afoot.

There’s a dry playfulness to the proceedings; Mylod helms the narrative as a twisted omakase. An amuse-bouche offers up a light introduction to the privileged bunch. That includes a movie star (John Leguizamo), his beleaguered companion (Aimee Carrero), an influential food critic (Janet McTeer), her editor (Paul Adelstein), married regulars (Judith Light and Reed Birney), and a trio of powerbrokers (Arturo CastroRob YangMark St. Cyr). But the tone grows increasingly darker with every subsequent course, with Chef Slowik and his righthand Elsa (Hong Chau) becoming more rigid and unpredictable with their dining rules.

Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in the film THE MENU. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

The affluent clientele means that the skeletons in their closet are of the expected and surface-level variety. The evening slowly draws their flaws to the forefront, but you can likely guess what they are long before they appear printed on the tortillas in a deconstructed taco dish. That they’re ultimately part of Chef Slowik’s grim dinner concept is demonstrated through every subtle detail in how they engage with service people, disregard simple dining requests, and feel safe despite the warning signs of danger.

It’s in the way the diners seem so complicit that fascinates, and the way the Chef and his employees fully commit to adhering to their service no matter how wildly things spiral out of control. The Menu may have gathered a fine cast for this delectable culinary nightmare, but the film belongs to Fiennes. It’s Fiennes’ performance as the obsessed Chef whose unwillingness to relinquish control despite his pursuit of perfection pushing him past the brink is masterful. It’s a tormented artist story by way of epicurean pretension. Fiennes, toggling between emotional intensity and quiet, dry humor, makes it seem so effortless.

There are layers to the satire. As one character explains, food is a history of class. The indictment of the one percent and obscenely wealthy remains at the top, but the dialogue on perfection and intellectualism is far more captivating. Have we lost our taste and appreciation for art because we’re too fixating on trying to outsmart it? The Menu may center around food artistry, but its criticisms apply to all art forms and those who critique them.

Mylod lets those questions linger on the palate, never getting too ghastly for this sophisticated dining experience. Even with bursts of shocking violence, there’s a restraint to the horror and madness. The wit, humor, style, and performances ultimately serve tasty morsels worth savoring. The pacing is as methodical as Chef Slowik’s meal, which means it has a way of dragging on a bit too long without fully satiating.

The Menu made its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and will release in theaters on November 18, 2022.

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