Maybe I just don’t eat out enough. Possibly, anything with Adam McKay’s name attached, in whatever capacity, spontaneously causes me to regurgitate my movie lunch. Marky Mylod (Alig G indahouse – whatever heights he may achieve in his career, this will forever blight his CV) lends a veneer of exclusive-establishment style to the screenplay from Seth Reiss and Will Tracy (the latter has worked with Mylod on Succession), but like the ridiculous dishes served by Ralph Fiennes chef, The Menu offers a persistent lack of nourishment here.
Chef Slowik: The menu only makes sense if you eat.
Margot: But you told us not to eat.
Indeed, I was becoming somewhat exasperated with the setup before the hour mark, and the movie conspicuously failed to shake that sensation up during the remainder of its runtime. “Guests at an exclusive island restaurant learn they’re to die” isn’t so far from numerous other movies dating all the way back to The Most Dangerous Game and taking in, more recently, The Invitation (2015) and The Hunt (2020) (and Midsommar, for that matter).
The Menu sells itself as black comedy horror satire but at no point pulls the rug out from under expectations. Except perhaps that one of the guests would end up on the titular list. Among the obvious beats is that Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), as the only sympathetic character among the diners and not supposed to be there, should be let off the hook. Indeed, her “outwitting” of Chef Slowik is particularly low-rent, as she rebukes his entire set up, suggesting the food was not made with love (but rather, obsession) and that the intellectual exercise of it all – one dish is dips without bread: “In this spirit, please enjoy the unaccompanied accompaniments” – sucks the joy out of eating. Slowik duly – and dully – rekindles the same by cooking her up a delicious cheeseburger (he started off as employee of the month at Hamburger Howie’s), which she takes to go. This prodigious patty is dreadfully pat – and since Slowik’s been exposed, shouldn’t he call the whole thing off, in terms of his mission to create the perfect career-and-life-capping meal? – while the subsequent “hilarious” s’more conflagration of remaining diners and staff left me wanting s’less.
There’s a touch of Theatre of Blood about the scenario, in which Vincent Price’s thesp enacts revenge on his critics, but his methods were altogether more creative; perhaps I’m partly reminded of it because one victim (Robert Morley) is force-fed pies made from his pet poodles. There’s nothing like that here, not even the most obvious recourse, as alluded above, of being fed human flesh from the menu (possibly, an exclusive island where elite patrons engage in cannibalism was considered as a little too obvious).
Slowik: So the question is, “Do you want to die with those who give or those who take?”
As it is, you’re left wishing there was something, anything more to The Menu. It’s heightened, but not so much that it can be embraced as actively absurd, and yet the motivation involved is negligible in import. Slowik has a beef with the guests for sapping his enthusiasm for his art, some of them of the most tenuous variety (he didn’t like a movie John Leguizamo was in, but who can’t say that?) His staff are all willing self-immolators (most notably the sous-chef blows his own brains out), for reasons left pretty vacant – hero worship of their boss, presumably, which may be joke at MKUltra treatment of kitchen staff by the likes of Gordon Ramsay but doesn’t explain Slowik making an example of himself for sexually harassing one of his staff (except, most probably, as a #MeToo shout out).
This isn’t all bad, just disappointing. The first fifty minutes are reasonably paced, and the performances are strong, particularly Nicholas Hoult as the food-worshipping snob who remains almost endearingly oblivious to their predicament and the various mortal situations unfolding as long as he can continue to savour the dishes during his evening. Hong Chau is also repressively frenzied as maître d Elsa, given to whispering zen comments at flustered guests (“You’ll eat less than you desire and more than you deserve”). Fiennes and Taylor-Joy are expectedly dependable, as is Janet McTeer. I liked the wine waiter’s increasingly extravagant, supercilious descriptions of the latest grape. The Coof earns a mention (“He kept you open through covid, you prick”), apropos nothing, really.
I was increasingly exasperated by the predictability of the material, though. The way an example is made of Tyler (Hoult) for not being able to cook himself, such that menu cards announce increasing cheap shots (“Tyler’s Bullshit”, “S’More: marshmallow, chocolate, graham cracker, customers, staff, restaurant”). Mostly, this is a “one-joke” idea that would probably have played better as the kind of OTT vehicle producers McKay and Will Ferrell might respectively have directed and starred in a decade and a half ago.