The Stew Review: The Menu delivers deliciously dark comedy, commentary

Ralph Fiennes stars as Chef Julian Slowik in The Menu.
Ralph Fiennes stars as Chef Julian Slowik in The Menu.(Fox Searchlight)
Published: Nov. 22, 2022 at 4:31 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 22, 2022 at 5:13 PM CST
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - It’s best to go into The Menu knowing as little about it as possible. As such, if a pitch-black comedic (somewhat macabre) condemnation of foodie culture (from inside the kitchen and out of it) that also serves as a searing indictment of artists who forget why they’re even creating to begin with is your bag, then you’ll probably love The Menu. That’s all you need to know. Come back after.

You’re back? You don’t care about spoilers? Intrigued but too turned off by the darker elements teased? Let’s go.

The easiest way to describe The Menu without getting *too* deep into spoiler-territory is: “What if David Fincher, director of Fight Club and Gone Girl, directed his own version of Ratatouille?” Granted, The Menu is bereft of Ratatouille’s more outrageous elements. For instance, you won’t find an anthropomorphic rat hiding beneath Ralph Fiennes’ chef’s hat controlling his every move (though, frankly, the movie reaches a point eventually where even that wouldn’t have fazed me). What the two share, however, is a common spirit expressed in often wildly disparate ways.

If you’re like me, the trailer gave the distinct impression the whole affair eventually devolves into a gastronomic riff on The Most Dangerous Game. Suffice to say it does not. The flavor of The Menu is one that slowly unfolds and doesn’t fully reveal the depth of itself until well until you realize things have sailed past the point of no return. Because for as much as The Menu’s marketing wants you to think this is some kind of slow-roasted horror movie, it’s really something closer to a modern day fable with a grounded premise but with sufficient splashes of absurdity to make you question the nature of its depicted reality.

Caught up within this smorgasbord of surreality is Margo (Anya-Taylor Joy). She’s a nonplussed plus-one who finds herself dragged along by her foodie culture-obsessed date, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), into the pomp and circumstance of an evening at Hawthorne, the isolated, island-bound hyper-exclusive restaurant led by the world-renowned Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). This isn’t the kind of high-level restaurant where you can simply order the world’s most expensive steak to pair with a couple glasses of a 15-year-old cabernet. No, the food at Hawthorne must be An Experience. Forget bread as an appetizer. You’ll stare at the concept of bread on an empty plate right after you’ve eaten a seaweed crisp covered in fake food snow and you’ll be in awe as you do so. That’s the idea, at least. Save for Margo, everyone’s come to Hawthorne in order to flaunt something, be it status, money, or idol worship. But as the courses become increasingly unhinged, it becomes clear that Chef Slowik has become tired of chasing Michelin stars and has far darker intentions for his guests.

What unfolds is a story that takes aim at chef and guests alike. At what point does passionate fandom become obsession? At what point do successful creatives who achieve the height of fame and success lose their way? What good is achieving that success if it ultimately comes at the cost of losing sight of the thing that made you happy in the first place? This is where it becomes truly of a piece with Ratatouille: Both films are about remembering what’s important when both creating and consuming art. The Menu just has 100 percent more stabbings.

Director Mark Mylod and writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy have their knives out for everyone from sycophants to cheaters to smarmy tech bros, too. To say nothing of the utter contempt it has for the way kitchen culture has transformed into a near cult-like formation, both from inside the kitchen and out, even as these chefs devolve into something resembling self-parody.

The Menu is largely an indictment of the ways fame and fandom have become something of an ouroboros slowly eating itself alive, but the filmmakers are just as angry at the ways modern society nourishes people who had little beyond their own perception of inherent value. Don’t mistake this for some finger-wagging missive, though. Even in the moments when the subtext becomes text, it’s handled with panache and humor and never feels preachy.

Even ignoring the thematic elements, though, it’s a joy just to watch the truth of this mystery slowly come into full view. It never achieves Agatha Christie levels of intrigue, but it’s a playfully tense affair that is happy to subvert expectations at nearly every turn.

If I have a single complaint, it’s that the script seems to run out of ideas on what to do with at least one or two members of its ensemble, leading to a violent encounter that feels borderline obligatory if only because the writers couldn’t figure out how else to inject some needed tension into a particular sequence.

Otherwise, this was a marvelous surprise that delighted my palate with every bite, and I’ll happily take seconds.

Oh, and it must be said that The Menu also features what may be the single best-looking double cheeseburger ever seen in a movie.