This review originally appeared as part of our coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A group of strangers are gathered under one roof where seemingly benign circumstances mask something more sinister. To complicate matters further, many of them are actually connected to each other and harbor secrets that will be revealed during the evening. It’s the bread and butter we play with in the director Marc Mylodit is The menu, a frustrating film centered on the experience of going to eat at the illustrious secluded restaurant known as Hawthorne. We see how people are willing to take a boat trip and shell out a chunk of change just to eat some Ralph Fiennes‘ Clap-joy Chief Slowik. Alas, even with promising ingredients that have been put together, this lukewarm thriller is one that grows increasingly tiresome with each run through.
It all starts with a couple waiting for the boat that will take them. Margot (Anya Taylor Joy) smokes when interrupted by the immediately obnoxious Tyler (Nicolas Hoult) who informs her that she will ruin his palace by doing so. In this opening interaction, we know almost everything there is to know about their relationship and where it will go. That in itself is a problem because, even with Taylor-Joy and Hoult giving game performances, we don’t have much to digest. Tyler is vapid and controlling while Margot is his perplexed companion at this expensive dinner party. Where he seems fascinated, even obsessed with this expedition, she seems rather annoyed by it all. However, he foots the bill, so she mostly plays along. When they get to the boat, we are introduced to the rest of the ensemble cast who are similarly superficially constructed. There’s a failed movie star, a group of finance brothers, an older couple, and a food critic. None of them really talk to each other as they all have their eyes on the destination that brought them all together.
When they arrive on the island, they are greeted by the very serious Elsa. Played by an ever-wonderful Hong Chau, she gives them a weird tour through what is essentially a compound that includes barracks for all the personnel to sleep in. Only Margot seems wary about it as the rest of the diners are painfully oblivious to almost everything around them. It soon becomes apparent that she is a working class when all the other characters have somehow found obscene wealth that allows them to be here. This marks the start of the film’s rather coy way of trying to make some sort of sociopolitical statement. Unfortunately, he is almost entirely toothless and lacks bite even as he becomes increasingly brutal. There’s not really any sense to what’s playing out as it just feels like it’s winding through gruesome but mundane escalations. While that may be the goal, the film clearly craves to be taken more seriously without ever working to earn it. When we are properly introduced to Slowik, his distaste for the guests is immediately apparent to us as the audience while flying over the heads of everyone but Margot. Taylor-Joy is certainly making the most of what little she has to work with here, only to get undermined at almost every turn.
It starts pretty early on when the characters all gather in a dining hall with what’s supposed to be an unobstructed view of the water they traveled on. Except, rather than being a believable backdrop, it looks almost entirely like a digital creation. In case it doesn’t, something really bad went wrong during filming to make it look like this. There are several moments where the characters put others front and center and make it even more confusing to watch. During the first few scenes, this does a disservice to the seemingly significant crosstalk between the characters. As day turns to night, it thankfully becomes less garish. The problem then becomes that the story just doesn’t measure up. Besides not always being funny or clever, there’s never anything sharp enough to call satire even though it seems to consider itself something close. Random comedy seems so broad that it never really says much. It’s not as witty or insightful as he seems to think.
While co-writer Does Tracy wrote a few episodes of the hit series Succession, which creates an honest and humorous portrayal of power, there is only a shadow of that sensibility here. It’s tempting to say it’s the product of inferior acting, but it’s also adamant that most of the characters exist in one-joke sketches. They each get some sort of trait that will define them throughout the experience, rendering any chance of comic exploration doomed from the start. There are a handful of moments where it seems set on tackling the pretentiousness of movie stars or critics with how their wealth has corrupted them, only to get caught up in its more conventional thriller elements.
Even assessing it in those terms, there’s nothing quite as impactful to take away. For every tense moment it just seems about to tip us over, there’s one that feels more constrained and random. In one of the many scenes where the story ends, Slowik has a conversation with Margot alone where he attempts to spell certain things. He even tries desperately to tell her that nothing happening here is arbitrary, a line that makes it sound like it could easily have been the movie trying to convince itself of its significance. While Fiennes is able to deliver an appropriate sense of menace with just one look, it feels like a repeat of his film. The Forgiven from the beginning of this year. This and now this try to slow down his performance while gesturing towards a grander vision. What makes this most recent work more perplexing is how aimlessly it wanders without any driving force or direction.
Running at an hour and forty-six minutes, it ends up feeling a lot longer than that just how repetitive it is. While a lot of that could be due to the confined setting and lack of variety in the visuals, even when there’s footage outside there’s no kind of spark. There’s the constant of meals that keep coming out and all vaguely mean something, even though we understand the game and where it all happens pretty quickly. It leaves itself very little way to go that could truly salvage what came before it. All of which makes it a surprise that the ending offers at least a small bite to eat. Of course, it remains overwhelming false praise because it arrives far too late to make this meal a memorable one. For all the promise of its main cast and strong thriller premise, The menu is a work that seems destined to escape your mind.
The menu is in theaters now.