Remember when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars and we all wondered if it was real or staged? The Menu is built around a moment exactly like that. It occurs about 45 minutes into the movie, setting the stage for the non-stop suspense coming over the next hour. This is more than a thriller, though, it's also a dark comedy, and a rather hilarious one at that. From the first scene to the final cut to black, I was enthralled by the unique, unpredictable story.
An incredibly fancy restaurant is located on a remote island. Actually, calling it fancy would be an understatement. It is said to be the best of the best. Run by Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), the eatery costs more than $1,000 per person, with each multi-course meal designed around a theme that patrons have to figure out over the span of a few hours. According to rumors, elements of theater are incorporated into every meal. A young couple, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), hop a boat to dine there. Within minutes, it becomes clear that they don't know each other very well. He's obsessed with Chef, she's skeptical about the whole experience, despite being willing to give it a try.
The other diners are a pretentious food critic (Janet McTeer) and her editor (Paul Adelstein), three hotshot businessmen (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, and Rob Yang), a washed-up action star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant (Aimee Carrero), and an older couple whose wife (Judith Light) notices that her husband (Reed Birney) is strangely eyeing up Margot. Chef has his crew bring out exquisite servings. Then the dramatic “thing” happens, making it clear that food is not all that's on the menu tonight. The characters aren't sure if the increasingly frightening events that occur are real or bizarre performance art.
I'm obviously talking around certain plot elements there. Not knowing for sure what's going on is a large part of what makes The Menu fun. Writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy have crafted one of the year's best screenplays. They put the work in, keeping the specific identities of the characters a mystery until the right moment. Dialogue, meanwhile, is sharp and stinging, poking fun at high-end foodie culture. And whereas the plot goes to wild places in the second half, it all makes sense. Often times, thrillers built around unusual premises start to cheat, relying on preposterous twists and out-of-nowhere revelations to get to their finales. In this case, every plot development builds naturally -- and pleasingly -- on what has come before, adhering to the film's internal logic. The script is a marvel of construction.
A superb ensemble cast elevates the material even further. Fiennes and Taylor-Joy are the lynchpins, creating a gripping dynamic between their characters. Chef is meticulous and precise, not just about his meal preparation but about the manner of delivery, the ambiance of the restaurant, the reaction of diners, etc. Margot is an outsider. Although we don't initially know how she ended up here, it's clear that she sees through the artifice. She's a loose cannon, and her ability to rattle Chef becomes a key factor in the third act. The stars work together brilliantly, calibrating their performances into a back-and-forth that's endlessly entertaining to watch.
Director Mark Mylod structures The Menu like a full-course meal, using onscreen text to divide up the sections. He additionally hits the balance between thrills and dark humor perfectly. (I did not expect to laugh as hard as I did.) The biggest satisfaction comes in noticing how strongly the cast and crew cared. From the clever script, to the outstanding performances, to the phenomenal production and set design that makes the restaurant a character in its own right, the film is assembled with as much love and dedication to quality that Chef puts into his meals.
I savored every wonderful minute of The Menu.
out of four
The Menu is rated R for strong/disturbing violent content, language throughout, and some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.