Food-related shows are ratings gold these days. Whether it be a competition in which chefs must make edible dishes out of ingredients that would make a goat vomit, or an entire hour dedicated to the differences between pedestrian deli meats and fine charcuterie, the masses are tuning in, quickly narrowing the divide between elitist foodies and armchair gastronomes. When you see a 300 pound guy in a New York Giants jersey audibly bemoaning the lack of Crème fraiche in his local supermarket’s dairy aisle, you know food snobbery has gone mainstream. With middle class toddlers being force-fed brioche and gruyere grilled sandwiches and heirloom tomato bisque, and steelworkers straddling girders to consume almond encrusted goat cheese medallions on beds of mesclun, a horror film like Bitter Feast couldn’t be more timely.
Peter Gray (James LeGros) is a brilliant celebrity chef who has spent the better part of his career espousing the benefits of fresh, local, and sustainable foods (many of which he hunts and harvests himself). Since the economic collapse, however, his pretentious and preachy style has fallen out of favor, putting his cable television series, Feast, on the brink of cancellation, and jeopardizing his lucrative deal with restaurant magnate, Gordon (played rather convincingly by real-life celebrity chef, Mario Batali), who has banked on the Peter’s series’ success by hiring him as the executive chef of a restaurant named after it.
When surly food blogger, J.T. Franks (Joshua Leonard), publishes a scathing review of the restaurant on his hugely influential Gastropunks website, Gordon is forced to make the difficult decision to end his professional relationship with Peter. This, compounded by the cancellation of his show, sends Peter over the edge, leading him to kidnap J.T. and spirit him away to his remote country home, where he begins the critic’s culinary reeducation. Here, Peter recites quotes from J.T.’s many damaging reviews, and gives the critic a chance to prove that he can do better than the chefs whose work he’s criticized. If J.T. can cook up to his own standards, he eats. If not, well…you get the picture.
Joe Maggio’s Bitter Feast is a darkly comedic, cleverly constructed take on America’s current obsession with food as entertainment, and the somewhat curious concept of both chefs and their critics as celebrities in general. It’s a fascinating twist on the de rigueur torture porn motif in that viewers can identify with one (or, in my case both) of these characters on some level. Peter, for all his bluster and posturing, is tired of seeing his fellow “artist’s” careers destroyed by any asshole with an opinion and access to a computer. As someone who also fancies himself a bit of a creative type, I can empathize with this character as I, too, have seen my work dissected unfavorably by people I don’t think are qualified to do so. At the same time, I’m also one of the very people Peter despises – an asshole with an opinion and access to a computer – so I can also identify with J.T., who, while perhaps lacking formal training, has enough of an interest and understanding of the art form he’s chosen to critique that he deserves to do so without fear of recourse.
While Peter wants to blame J.T. for destroying his career, it’s people like J.T. who gave him a career in the first place. At the same time, J.T.’s let his personal life color his reviews; understandably embittered by both the loss of his child and slow dissolution of his marriage, he’s a joyless man whose reviews serve up little more than heaping helpings of schadenfreude. These are two highly flawed characters, each possessing palpable reasons to root for and against them, and I found this one of Bitter Feasts most novel and appealing traits. Unfortunately, Maggio’s screenplay isn’t able to maintain that freshness into the third act, where the film leans on familiar torture-porn tropes to carry it home to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. Still, the good outweighs the bad, here, and, for fans of both torture and food porn, Bitter Feast is a deliciously offbeat treat.
The DVD from MPI/Dark Sky features a commentary track with Maggio, producers Larry Fessenden (who also plays a supporting role in the film), Petere Phok, Brent Kunkle, and sound designer Graham Reznick. It’s a busy track, with Fessenden and Maggio dominating the chatter, but it’s an informative and pleasant listen. We also get a short making-of featurette, a funny interview segment with Mario Batali, a selection of deleted and alternate scenes, and more.