Ralph Fiennes in "The Menu" Source: Searchlight Pictures

Review: 'The Menu' All Sizzle, no Follow-through

Derek Deskins READ TIME: 3 MIN.

It was about halfway through "The Menu" that it started to split at its admittedly entertaining seams. The world had been established, its characters introduced and colored in, and the sense of foreboding had crescendoed to a breaking point. And just as I was bracing for something extraordinary to slap me across the face, "The Menu" just kind of plopped onto the floor. It limped through the motions and fumbled around trying to make its themes feel more mature and probing. Unfortunately, "The Menu" was all flash and little follow-through.

Dining at The Hawthorne is an experience like no other. Located on a remote island, the exclusive restaurant seats no more than 12 customers and carries a price tag exceeding $1,000 per person. The menu, meticulously formulated under the precise gaze of celebrity chef Julian Slowik is as much about the food as it is about the experience of eating it. But tonight will be different, for Chef Julian has produced a tasting that will shatter the worlds of his patrons.

There is a lot to like in the first half of "The Menu." The screenplay from writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy is punchy, witty, and aware enough of reality to play with it. While other films could crumble under the weight of the sheer number of characters, "The Menu" is adept at balancing the many disparate flavors. A significant amount of that success is owed to the cast, all of whom are afforded moments to shine.

Nicholas Hoult's Tyler is our entrance to the film. Tyler is as pretentious as the meal is expensive, but in a nerdy manner that could easily make him relatable. However, Hoult knows that Tyler is not a good person, and imbues his performance with a sense of entitlement that leaves you always rooting against him. His opposite, and the true audience surrogate, is his date Margot, brought to life by Anya Taylor-Joy. Margot is the voice of reason that is so often absent from horror movies. She says what we think, and the surrounding world of excess is forced to grapple with this perspective that they so often ignore.

The only real foil to Margot is Ralph Fiennes' mysteriously sinister chef. While the role is certainly cut of the Fiennes cloth (i.e., elegant, commanding, and congenially terrifying), he is far from resting on his laurels here. Fiennes' performance is powerful whether he is whispering threateningly or pleasantly describing his next course. Then there is Hong Chau finding ways to nearly run away with the movie whenever she appears on screen (a Chau speciality).

So, yes, there is plenty to love in "The Menu," and if its back half matched its front, it'd be a slam dunk. But at a certain point, director Mark Mylod realizes that there must be some meaning to the film, some reason for this to exist beyond pure entertainment. Nevertheless, its theme of class division reads as tired and lazy. There is hope that the bombast of bloodshed may distract from its empty interior, but when the setup has been so exquisite, not even a chopped finger can make up for the lack of follow-through.

For much of the film's runtime, it is immensely enjoyable. It has an intriguing premise, a fantastic cast, and just enough menace to keep you guessing. It has a dark sense of humor that breaks tension wonderfully, and the world itself is a delight to behold. But when "The Menu" sets out to give itself meaning, to be more than an alternatingly funny and upsetting horror-comedy, it struggles to find its footing.

Having finished watching "The Menu," I chewed on it further and came to notice that the flavors weren't as interesting and there was a persistent bitter aftertaste. It is an extravagant meal with a hefty price tag that will leave you hungry and in need of a burger on the way home.

"The Menu" opens in theaters on November 18.

by Derek Deskins

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