The Menu is a satire of, among other things, high-end food culture and the habits of the rich and powerful. That type of movie can be tedious, especially when done in an overly broad way. But here, it works, delivering surprises and twists with perfect precision.
It was directed by the British filmmaker Mark Mylod, who’s the signature director of the popular HBO series Succession, another series that's largely about the foibles of the extraordinarily rich. Mylod's previous features, including the pre-Borat Ali G movie and the Ana Faris romantic comedy What's Your Number, weren't great, but The Menu is nearly a complete success. The script was written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracey, both of whom have comedy chops; they wrote for The Onion and other related projects, while Reiss was a Seth Meyers writer and Tracey worked for John Oliver (and later wrote for Succession).
The film puts a first-rate cast through a wild night; what's most impressive is that it walks a difficult tightrope and never falls off. The premise takes the idea of the "cult of the chef" to ridiculous extremes. Ralph Fiennes stars as a celebrity chef named Julian Slowik, who runs a restaurant so exclusive that it's located on an island accessible only by boat, implicitly off the coast of San Francisco. Hong Chau is Elsa, his hostess who's really more of an enforcer.
We're at first introduced to the guests as they board the boat. Tyler (Nicolas Hoult) is a foodie accompanied by a woman (Anya Taylor-Joy) who we learn wasn’t his original date. There's a trio of finance bros (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cry and Rob Yang), an older couple (Judith Light and Reed Barney), and a restaurant critic and her editor (Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein).
There's also an obnoxious washed-up actor, played by John Leguizamo, with his long-suffering assistant (Aimee Carrero.) In a press conference last week, Leguizamo said "fuck it," and named his Executive Decision co-star Steven Seagal as the character's main inspiration.
The Menu has a lot in common with the upcoming Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, including that it’s set on an island, and different categories of rich people genuflecting before the island's host. Like Succession, the film has a fine eye for luxury and the way America's wealthy play in it, with little joy. And also like Succession, it's an American story told with the distance that Britishness provides. But the film is also frequently very funny.
Anya Taylor-Joy is the cast's MVP, as someone who doesn't fit in with this crowd but knows how to outsmart them, while Hoult, a hoot as Peter on the Hulu show The Great, is similarly outstanding. The cast offers a talented crowd of many New York stage types, as well as some from the alt-comedy scene. Peter Grosz, in particular, nails every line as the sommelier. I give the film credit for not including a third-act twist involving cannibalism, which I was sure was the ending when the film was first announced. The ending is way better.