‘The Menu’ is a smorgasbord of surprises

“The Menu” (2022) – “Welcome to Hawthorne.  It will be our pleasure to feed you.” – Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes)

What a welcoming invitation!  Let’s eat!

Not so fast. 

Julian Slowik – who only wishes to be called, Chef – runs a restaurant, an exclusive eatery.  Hawthorne is located on an island, but no problem.  A boat will shuttle you ashore.

What’s the total price tag for the trip, meal, experience, and overall ambiance?

Just $1,250 per person.

By charging such an expensive rate, Chef doesn’t want you to eat.  One eats at Denny’s or Burger King.  At Hawthorne, patrons should “taste, savor, and relish” the food that Chef and his team of loyal subjects prepare and serve. 

Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes)

For first-timers and repeat customers alike on this particular day, all 11 anxiously anticipate the delicacies and wonders they will indulge in over several courses during the next few hours.

Well, almost all. 

The private guest list includes prominent movers and shakers:

  • A renowned food critic (Janet McTeer) and her snobby friend (Paul Adelstein).
  • A Hollywood movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant/girlfriend (Aimee Carrero).
  • Three playboys (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr), who act like Wall-Street types, have a connection to Hawthorne’s operations.
  • A wealthy 60-something couple (Reed Birney and Judith Light).
  • And a 30-something obsessive foodie (Nicholas Hoult) and his date (Anya Taylor-Joy).

Which visitor isn’t caught up with the cuisine and libations? 

Tyler’s (Hoult) plus one, Margot (Taylor-Joy).  She’s simply ready for a meal and wishes to ship out the culinary pomp and circumstance on the boat that brought her here.  Margot is the straightforward, no-nonsense type and is simply with Tyler for a hopefully enjoyable affair.

Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult)

In addition to Chef’s exquisite recipes of “fat, salt, sugar, and protein,” he also serves one more ingredient:  surprises, as in plural. 

“The Menu” is chock-full of them, as this assumed tranquil evening is anything but relaxing.  Chef – the man who pulls all the strings on this island – can fling more apprehension on everyone within ear range than Gordon Ramsay.  Ironically, Chef never has to raise his voice, but he still commands an audience, and the spectators and staff have no choice. 

So, what is on “The Menu”?

Director Mark Mylod and screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s collective creation is a smorgasbord of tones and genres. Their big-screen banquet is a wildly entertaining and curious combination of comedy and thrills. 

For gastronomes, Chef’s dishes are visually striking and illustrated by the master of ceremonies with considerable detail.  For non-foodies, it’s awfully difficult to remember – or frankly, have the time to write down – the edible components as they are presented, but each course is also highlighted – via script – many times for comedic effect.

For general moviegoers, this rated-R, 106-minute minefield is set primarily in one location, and the players keep the pacing swift and fresh.  Each couple (or a group for the three aforementioned fellas) carries a colorful backstory that the audience receives, a morsel at a time.  Mylod swings and shifts his camera around the dining room, so we frequently drop in on Lillian (McTeer) and Ted (Adelstein) or Richard (Birney) and Anne (Light), and so on, as they enjoy various glorious provisions and wonder about the splendor and eccentricities of their posh meal. 

Soren (Arturo Castro) and Elsa (Hong Chau)

As the minutes tick by, the Hawthorne happenings become more bizarre and unexpected, both with the elegant rations but also with Chef’s and his team of assistants’ behavior.  Even though the savory ceremonies remain contained within the dining quarters, Mylod and cinematographer Peter Deming keep our attention square on the screen, and the 11 customers don’t crowd or step over each other.

Everyone often gets their chances to shine in a round-robin style that always feels effortless and energetic. 

Speaking of performances, Fiennes is the authoritarian puppet master who evokes madness, sincerity, and obsession, and his work here is a mesmerizing one.  There’s a fairly close parallel with another character that he played opposite about 20 years ago, but let’s not divulge the exact film in this review.

Hong Chau plays Chef’s first lieutenant, Elsa, and she’s just as commanding as her boss. One might guess that she’s secretly scheming for her own restaurant someday. 

Lastly, Taylor-Joy is perfectly cast here.  Her marriage with the material might not be evident at first, but stick around for the third, fourth, and fifth courses during the spirited second and third acts. Yes, chances are that “The Menu” will be a cinematic check that you’ll gladly pick up (and add a generous tip to boot), because this is one memorable meal!

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by: Mark Mylod

Written by: Seth Reiss and Will Tracy

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero, Reed Birney, Judith Light, Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr

Rated: R

Runtime: 107 minutes

Image credits: Searchlight Pictures

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