Sharp acting, writing, and direction make The Menu one of the best Studio Produced Films of 2022.
Director Mark Mylod’s The Menu is the very definition of adroit studio-produced filmmaking – performances, writing, direction, visuals, and production design – all acutely and perfectly working in harmony to give us one of the slickest and most entertaining thrillers of recent memory. Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy go toe-to-toe in this brilliant takedown of the rich, elitist food culture, and everything in-between.
12 Guests pay $1200 to be thrilled and marvel at the genius that is Chef Julian Slowik (Fiennes) and his elite staff of artisans at The Hawthorne. The guest list ranges from an Aging Superstar (John Leguizamo) and his assistant (Aimee Castro), three finance bros (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, and Rob Yang), a renowned Food Critic (Janet McTeer) and her Editor (Paul Adelstein), an older couple (Judith Light and Reed Birney), and an overzealous fanboy (Nicholas Hoult) and his last-minute guest Margot (Taylor-Joy). As the 8-course meal begins everyone but Margot is thrilled. She finds it all a bit of a fraud but more so the way the staff led by Elsa (Hong Chau) and cult-like allegiance to Chef shakes her in a way that even Chef noticed. As the night goes on Margot’s suspicions are not unfounded as Chef has planned more than any of the guests bargained for their $1200-a-plate dinner.
Standing toe to toe in this film are the leads Fiennes and Taylor-Joy. One of the most wonderful aspects of The Menu is the way that seasoned legend nor brilliant neophyte plays out this dance of words, actions, reactions, and emotions set again the backdrop of even more brilliant acting. Taylor-Joy with The Menu has risen to movie star status. Her Margot is no shrinking violet and has zero tolerance for the elitest tomfoolery that she’s experiencing. Taylor-Joy manages to make her as smart – both book and street – without the kind of abrasive overwhelming masculinity that often is the case with other performances of similar ilk. Fiennes continues to prove that much like his contemporary – Daniel Day-Lewis – that every performance is a masterclass in acting. Chef Julian Solwik is both everything and nothing – a man in control and wildly out of it. The way that Fiennes plays everything behind the eyes and brimming to the surface with these physical moments is the type of subtle masterful acting we only see in actors of Fiennes’s caliber.
The supporting cast is uniformly fantastic. Each gets their specific moments and arcs – thanks to the witty and adroit script – that they run with. McTeer as an austere food critic and Chau as the maître d excel. Hoult and Leguizamo bring both swarmy charm and laughs when they’re needed. Even smaller roles like those of Carrero, Castro, St. Cyr, and Yang are written and performed with elevated consideration, and wit – all four have some of the biggest laughs in the picture.
The Menu never shies away from being funny or being strikingly violent and does so in equal measure. Both – the humor and gore – are done so strikingly well and perfectly timed that one or the other is bound to take your breath away. The script by screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy is a model of plot-bound structures hidden in plain sight. Choosing to emphasize the characters and their specific plights, the plot manifests itself without the kind of clunky plot exposition one expects from thrillers of similar ilk. The way that they are able to hide in plain sight the more thrilling set pieces – done with so much wit, style, and humor – will be studied for its grace and understanding of how to visually and stylistically bring specific subjects to life.
Much of The Menu is a critique of the wealthy but not in the traditional sense. As the film loves to subvert the expectations of that critique. It isn’t just “money is bad and the people that have are too”. The way that the film shows how that wealth is a cancer that insipidly infects everything including something as essential to life as food is the masterstroke of the film. The way that the film calls out the stupidity of the style of food that shows like Chef’s Table have lionized is truly wonderful and gives Cinematographer Peter Deming a chance to shine with flashy but truly wicked photographic trickery.
The Menu is the reason why adults should stop streaming – at least for the night – and go to the movies. A studio-produced movie crafted with artfully skilled intelligence, sharp biting humor, and wicked thrills is a rarer sight these days. Rarer still is one that’s as uniformly successful as this one. Don’t miss it.