HBO Max just confirmed its title of the home box office with one of last year's most buzzed-about movies. The Menu, from Searchlight Pictures, just arrived yesterday (January 3rd, 2023). And as someone who's seen it in theaters, I can report it is a doozy.
A sure-fire entry to be added to our list of the best movies on HBO Max in the immediate future, The Menu is one of those movies that's come to a streaming service in relatively short time.
Releasing in theaters on November 18, 2022, The Menu's January 3rd arrival is exactly 45 days since its theatrical release. That's the gap we hope every movie gets between theaters and streaming (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever's Disney Plus date shows how it can sometimes take more time). The Menu is also on Sky Atlantic and NOW in the UK.
This gap also means The Menu was neither rushed-to-streaming, nor a movie so big that it could dawdle. So, should you watch it tonight? Allow me, someone who's seen it, to help you decide.
What is The Menu?
Even foodies make fun of other foodies, so we're a little surprised that it took us this long to get a movie quite like The Menu. The thriller/horror movie brings a group of big spenders to dine at the exclusive Hawthorn restaurant, which is only available by boat, as it's out on an island in the Pacific Northwest. Basically, Hawthorn is a next-level speakeasy-style restaurant: you need travel accommodations to find it.
At Hawthorn, renowned chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) is making Seinfeld's Soup Nazi look relaxed and casual, as he runs an extremely tight ship. We follow a couple — Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) — to the island, and sort of see the situation through her eyes. She's the suspicious one, and he's the true believer foodie.
Mouthfeel is referenced. Questions about what "notes" are to be tasted also blossom up. Margot and Tyler are surrounded by tech bros, a once-popular actor (John Leguizamo) and a noted food critic. But something seems off.
Slowly, and often from the voice of Elsa (Hong Chau), the general of Slowik's staff, we learn that the guests all have secrets — and the chef has ulterior motives. Violence ensues, with wild flourishes left and right.
The Menu reviews: What the critics say
The Menu was a hit with critics, garnering an 89% score on the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator site (and a not-shabby 76% audience score).
David Sims of The Atlantic praises "Fiennes’s performance [as] hilariously homicidal," but ultimately commends Taylor-Joy's role in the movie, writing that "Her presence gives The Menu a surprisingly conservative streak, but that, in turn, gives the story some grist, and a dilemma for the audience to ponder on the way out—more food for thought than your average glossy fall thriller tends to offer."
Peter Travers at Good Morning America commends the chefs behind the film for its ability to surprise, writing "The Menu stays unpredictable and delectably unhinged from first scene to last."
You can like The Menu, but also have issues with it, as Fox 19 WXIX-TV's Terrence Todd noted "As much as I liked it... at the end of the day, it's not quite as smart as it thinks it is."
Similarly, Sims noted that The Menu may have similarities to Luis Buñuel’s 1962 "surrealist classic" The Exterminating Angel, while being "not quite as artful: It delivers its jokes as a series of hammer blows, making sure to villainize the assembled diners beyond any hope of redemption."
Should you stream or skip The Menu?
Ever worked in a restaurant, and felt like the world was rife with opportunities for satire? Rolled your eyes at yet-another closeup of a fancy dish popping up in your Instagram feed? Questioned the culture behind a $50 burger?
The Menu, dear reader, is for you. Provided, of course, that you have a taste for the macabre and horror. Personally? I'd say you also need to go in ready for The Menu to get unrealistic and a bit farcical. I didn't know how far it would go, it went a step or two further, and I was left puzzled.