The Menu is a quick-footed black comedy about perception and wealth, an investigation of privilege with a triangular power struggle and a beleaguered woman at the center — ringing Don’t Worry Darling bells. The film explores the tensions between the servers and the served — not just how the 1% live, but how they show off.
Director Mark Mylod has made a name directing episodes of Succession, and The Menu trods similar ground as the HBO juggernaut. Ralph Fiennes plays the sinister superstar chef Julian Slowik, who is presenting a new chapter for his restaurant, Hawthorne. The diners attending the ultra-ambitious and comically expensive multi-course meal include Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who accentuates her leather jacket with a gaze permanently on the brink of eyeroll, and the date who’s dragged her here, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a sniveling foodie looking for any excuse to say “mouthfeel.”
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The Menu’s real pleasure lies in its casting, a Clue-like assortment of snobs and phonies who mostly deserve whatever’s coming to them. It’s a triumphant gang of character actors: John Leguizamo as a palpably insecure washed-up actor; the always spectacular Hong Chau as the prickly and professional maître d’; Broad City favorite Arturo Castro as a maladjusted finance bro and budding white-collar criminal; Janet McTeer as a food critic who considers herself responsible for Julian’s success. As the dinner unfolds, the distinction between diner and menu fogs, and Julian’s resentment toward his monied clientele ramps up into active hostility. It’s fitting that a jaded artist like Julian has found his calling in the most ephemeral medium. Food is life and death, he reminds us, but it’s also, ultimately, shit.
The Menu is what I call a “Yankee Doodle movie”: a movie about America directed by an established, international director that interrogates American culture and class as fantasy. Yankee Doodle movies are littered with obvious foreign signifiers. Here, John Leguizamo’s character says he wants to move from acting to “presenting”; in Widows (2017), Colin Farrell’s accent can’t help but roll. These movies remind us how America is perceived and commodified — the cherry pie and diner stool aesthetic of Baby Driver (2017), the hardscrabble prison western of The Mustang (2019) — into a fantasia informed by the decimated American Dream.
And in The Menu, we get a look at American wealth and how it’s fetishized. The Menu takes place in one night in one remote location. The Hawthorne staff sleep in barrack-like accommodations and rise in ant-like unison to tend the island’s organic gardens — it’s a playground not just for Julian, not just for the actors who all get to scene-chew, but for Mylod as a director. He’s built a world with its own set of rules and culture, where it’s safe to (sometimes literally) skewer one-percenters.
Most of the comedy in The Menu is its strawman approach to class. Positioned opposite the absurdly narcissistic diners is Margot, who refuses to touch the ornate meals which get intimate, glossy close-ups. In a more serious movie, a woman pushing food around on her plate would be clinically troubling, but here it’s just meant to represent a righteous distaste for frivolity. Caricatures make for good cannon fodder, but if you’re looking for a true investigation of power and wealth, The Menu isn’t it. This is before you even get into the in-joke irony of an actor as posh as Fiennes playing an all-American working-class slaughterer.
It’s unfair to complain that this is not a Boots Riley movie, but The Menu pointedly avoids addressing the critiques of the depiction of power that have been levied at thornier movies like 2019’s Parasite, 2020’s Nomadland and this year’s Triangle of Sadness. Instead, The Menu joins the long list of genre movies and series made after the towering success of Get Out (2017) that lightly explore social justice and were released by the same type of multinational corporations they mock. Market research indicates the masses are primed to sneer at billionaires; conglomerates are cashing in.
The Menu’s strawman targets are laughably easy but at least they’re laughable, which is more than can be said about most of the dull-witted social horror that goes direct to stream. The Menu is not a reflection of anything consequential — you might still be hungry for something a little more substantial at the end. But the madness that unravels is a pleasure to watch and the comedy has real kick. Like the Hawthorne’s dinner service, it’s really more about the experience.
The Menu is now in theaters.
Main image: Anya Taylor-Joy in The Menu.