Movies on the Menu

There was a time in the late ‘90s, at the height of the American indie film movement, when the Classic Cup would coordinate with The Tivoli Theater and recreate meals featured in the food-themed movies of the day. The best food movies not only entertain with their metaphors of consumption, obsessive characters and fetishism of epicurean pleasures, but also stimulate the appetite. Here are four films that will have you on your way to the nearest bistro before the credits are finished.


“Big Night”

Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci & Tony Shalhoub in 1996’s “Big Night.”
“Eat Drink Man Woman” is a feast for your eyes.
Sukiyabashi Jiro at work in 2011’s “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”
Amy Adams & Meryl Streep in 2009’s charming “Julie & Julia.”

Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub play Secondo and Primo, a pair of immigrant brothers struggling to make a go of a seaside Italian restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. Primo is the meticulous chef, willing to come to blows with customers who would dare order risotto and spaghetti in the same meal. Secondo is the long-suffering businessman who knows his brother’s perfectionism is driving their ristorante to the verge of failure. Adding tension to this classic art versus commerce dilemma is Secondo’s personal life, torn between Phyllis (Mini Driver) whom he longs to marry and Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini) with whom he is having a secret affair. When Secondo gets a tip from his ebullient business rival Pasqual (Ian Holm) that jazz man Louis Prima and his band are coming to Secondo’s restaurant, he risks everything on an epic Italian feast, inviting all his friends, local press and both of the women. Directed by Tucci and fellow actor Campell Scott, this film is every bit as in love with its cast as its cuisine. The performances are splendid, clearly nurtured and given the kind of time and consideration that a master chef gives to food. The dinner itself is a multi-course show stopper, allowing us to almost forget that disaster is imminent. “Big Night” is pure pleasure, both funny and bittersweet, and even more impressive than the grand feast is a wordless scene of brotherly atonement involving a single camera take and a simple omelet.


“Eat Drink Man Woman”
“My memory is in my nose” laments Master Chef Chu whose aging taste buds have forced him to rely on Old Wen, his elderly taster in the kitchen of the Taipei Grand Hotel. When not at work, Chu prepares lavish meals for his three grown daughters who live at home with him, but this ritual balance is soon upset as the daughters all find love and the ensuing disruptions test Chu, who eventually reveals an unexpected relationship of his own. Director Ang Lee, who would follow this up with 1995’s “Sense and Sensibility,” (another tale of sisters in love) elegantly moves us through the multiple love stories, all balanced by sumptuous meals around the family table including some spectacular-looking dumplings. This may sound like pure soap opera, but this is a movie filled with profoundly emotional moments. Lee’s gift is his ability to spring surprises on his characters (and us) without telegraphing them. Once they happen, they feel truthful and organic … and are played for everything they’re worth. “Eat Drink Man Woman” is a film that patiently sneaks up on you but its biggest surprise may be how much you come to care about its characters.


“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”
Sukiyabashi Jiro is a tiny sushi restaurant in Tokyo that seats only 10 customers, all of whom have had reservations for at least a month and who will each pay more than $300 for their meal. The Michelin Guide has consistently given its top ranking to the restaurant, run by 85-year-old Jiro Ono and his eldest son, Yoshikauzu. In this mesmerizing documentary by David Gelb, Jiro’s quest for perfection and quality is demonstrated by the rigor of his apprentices, who sign on for 10 years of obligation, tenderizing octopus by hand for at least an hour before it’s served and working through dozens of failed attempts to create perfect sushi rice. Jiro is described by all around him as shokunin, a leader and master craftsman, possessing a tireless zeal to constantly improve the sushi he has dedicated his life to making. Even those who don’t find the sight of sashimi tuna mouth-watering will be fascinated by the journey from the fish markets to the sushi bar and awed by the dedication of Jiro and his staff as they deliver to diners (and viewers) the perfect meal in the perfect order. That said, when one of the fish merchants remarks that shrimp are getting harder to find, an elephant-in-the-room of sorts appears and is finally addressed by Jiro’s son, who admits that the oceans are being fished out and that we must find a balance between commerce and protecting the oceans. In a pair of unexpected moments, a gasping eel being flayed alive and an octopus trying to escape its captors seem to echo a harsh reality that all carnivores must acknowledge. But those are not lingering moments and filmmaker Geld’s camera, accompanied by music by Philip Glass and Max Richter, revels in travelogue beauty shots, time lapse images of Jiro’s kitchen and living portraits of his staff and sons. It’s a shame I can’t visit Sukiyabashi Jiro as easily as I streamed the movie via Netflix.


“Julie & Julia”
Nora Ephron’s funny, charming and occasionally tongue-in-cheek chic-flick-bio-pic hybrid is two movies for the price of one. Amy Adams plays Julie, a plucky blogger and Julia Child devotee who sets out to cook her way through Julia’s classic tome one recipe at a time. What would have been a less-than-routine film on its own is brilliantly buoyed by a secondary story featuring Meryl Streep’s tour-de-force performance as Julia Child. When we first meet her she is living in Paris and married to devoted diplomat Paul Child, played with quiet strength and nimble charm by Stanley Tucci. She doesn’t even know how to cook! Her eventual entrance into cooking school, alliance with a pair of French cooks and the creation of her now famous “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is peppered with fascinating details and sharp scenes that never overstay their welcome. Streep’s work is showy and funny, managing to walk a fine line between impersonation and parody, bolstered by an emotional honesty and sense that she is playing someone who was conscious of her own larger-than-life personality. Julia’s story benefits from not having to be aware of anything except the moment, whereas Julie’s must constantly acknowledging the counter story and is forced into standard chick-flick situations with often cloying sentiment. The movie is at its best when the emotions of Julie and Julia mirror each other from scene to scene, creating effortless transitions back and forth in time. In those moments the film soars, and it becomes more than just a movie. It becomes a profound sensory experience exactly like a great meal.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre