Upper-class guests at an eclectic restaurant on a conspicuously isolated island are served in more ways than one in The Menu, a delicious if faintly aloof new black comedy now playing in Prague and cinemas worldwide. Bolstered by a scenery-devouring performance by Ralph Fiennes, this arresting entrée may be obvious in its satire, but goes down refreshingly easy.
Nicholas Hoult and Anya Taylor-Joy star as Tyler and Margot, a young couple who open the movie aboard a boat sailing to the Hawthorn, a once-in-a-lifetime (for most patrons) dining experience that holds some unexpected surprises.
The Hawthorn is run by the mysterious Chef Slowik (Fiennes), who we can assume is Slovak based on a reference to a childhood in Bratislava. Based on information provided by the film, his family likely fled Czechoslovakia for Iowa following the Warsaw Pact Invasion in the late 1960s, when Slowik was a young boy. That’s neither here nor there for most audiences, but provides some interesting backstory for locals.
At the Hawthorn, the pinnacle of Chef Slowik’s culinary career, guests are served a fancy-schmancy menu consisting of items made up of the entire ecosystem, or rather biome, of the surrounding island locale. The menu tells a story, and the theme isn’t revealed until the final course. But tonight’s menu will be a little different, as Chef Slowik is entertaining some special guests.
Those guests include restaurant critic Lillian (Janet McTeer) and her editor/enabler Ted (Paul Adelstein); a trio of young corporate goons (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr) who work for Slowik’s primary investor; regular guests Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light); a Hollywood star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant (Aimee Carrero); and even Slowik’s own mother (Rebecca Koon).
And Tyler and Margot, who hold some secrets of their own. Margot happens to be a replacement guest for Tyler’s ex-girlfriend, something that seems to particularly perturb Slowik. And Tyler himself is not a member of the elite upper class like the diners that surround him, but rather a caustic fan of the head chef.
The Menu has been sold as a kind of Most Dangerous Game-esque thriller with diners fighting for their lives on a deserted island, but it’s more of a chilly-cool satire with some incisive social commentary. Among the Hawthorn’s guests, only Taylor-Joy’s Margot seems interested in putting up a fight to save herself; the rest of the crowd appears accepting of their fate, coming to terms with their own guilt over the course of the evening.
Director Mark Mylod (Succession, Game of Thrones) manages to maintain an exquisite balance for much of The Menu’s running time: the true nature of the story is slowly and delicately revealed over the course of the movie, just like Slowik’s titular menu, while the tone carefully wavers between satire and thriller but never veers too sharply into either
One quibble: Slowik’s crew of a dozen or so employees at the Hawthorn are so rigidly cult-like in acceptance of their head chef’s plans that they come off like Bond villains, despite three separate attempts to humanize them.
Tense and exciting but also packed with biting commentary and some laugh-out-loud one-liners, The Menu is one of the more unique experiences you’ll have at the cinema this year, and most likely one of the better ones. Pair it with Triangle of Sadness, also playing in Prague cinemas, for a double-dose of delicious class satire.