The Menu review – darkly comic foodie thriller is tasty but undercooked

Toronto film festival: Ralph Fiennes is a sinister chef with a deviously designed menu in a fun, if throwaway, stew of class satire and torture porn

Boasting a director, co-writer and producer who have all served on HBO’s banner business drama Succession, restaurant thriller The Menu arrives with similar ingredients, just cooked at a different temperature. It’s as sleekly designed, all sharp marble edges and oversized wine glasses, and also focused on the grotesqueries of the haves, here being forced to deal with the have nots, serving them an elaborate multi-course dinner at an absurdly ostentatious private island, $1,250 a head – TBC on whether they’ll get to keep their heads by dessert.

The intimate 12-person group represents different types of wealth – old money, new money, Hollywood money – but all are united by their desire to experience the very best. Here that best is taken to the extreme by pretentious chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), whose idea of food is less about enjoyment and more about admiration. His courses are prepared and presented with maximum theatricality and they’re accepted with chin-stroking awe by most of the diners, apart from a bemused Margo (Anya Taylor-Joy) the last-minute replacement date of Tyler (Nicholas Hault), a rather sycophantic foodie fanboy. She’s the voice of reason breaking the coos for a plate of foam and leaves (she calls it the “basecamp of mount bullshit”), but her presence soon irks the chef, whose strict plan for the evening didn’t count on her attendance.

Taking aim at extreme wealth and the extreme stupidity of high-end restaurant excess, writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy have plenty of fun mercilessly throwing rocks at low-hanging fruit in the first act, as mystery surrounds the specifics, and we have plenty of fun watching them fall to the ground one by one. There are some fantastically ridiculous moments, such as the arrival of a breadless bread plate and Janet McTeer’s hilariously awful food critic basking in her own nonsensical wordplay, and while it’s all very silly, it’s also not unrecognisably so. The world of fine dining can very often be one of pompous, straight-faced stupidity and the details of the food and how it’s presented feel informed and loosely real, just a fraction away from something we might expect to see on Chef’s Table (a show both name-checked by a character and watched as research by Fiennes).

When the cards are kept close, director Mark Mylod’s film is at its most delicious, much armchair detective fun to be had with the age-old setup of strangers brought to an isolated location for a sinister reason (a dusty old subgenre that propagated once again throughout Covid for obvious reasons). The upstairs downstairs class warfare is slight but stings enough; there are some bracing shocks that hit well and despite the acts of violence that start to pile up, the gore is more suggestive than savage: a horror film made for people who can’t usually stomach horror films.

But as the courses progress and the unravelling begins, the ingredients begin to curdle and that sharpness begins to blunt. It’s a mystery that works better when it’s being teased than when it’s being revealed, the promise of a labyrinthine plot replaced with a surprisingly straight line. There are niggles I had in the last act that would be impossible to explain without spoiling, but certain events and decisions felt too improbable or too unexplained, a major character’s survival strategy never making sense (there’s also a grand, emotional swell of music in the finale that feels curiously unearned).

While the plotting around them might feel reheated, there are enough Michelin star performances from both ends of the spectrum to chew on, with a scarily self-possessed Hong Chau coming out on top (on a roll this season with Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale also premiering), alongside the aforementioned McTeer on fine, foul form.

The Menu might not nail some of the more substantial courses but it’ll do as a light snack.

  • The Menu is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released in US and UK cinemas on 18 November


Benjamin Lee in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

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