Like popcorn, this summer's food films have been easy to swallow but ultimately unfulfilling. Here's a quick recap of the offerings (warning: spoilers abound).
According to the Waitress plot summary, Jenna's a talented pie cook unhappily married to a jealous and controlling husband, and pregnant with his unwanted child. Jenna's friends and Old Joe, the pie shop's owner, support Jenna, as things seem hopeless until she meets and has an affair with her married gynecologist.
What unfolds is a horrifying depiction of spousal abuse, selfish friendships and heart-wrenching scenes of victimization. The countdown to salvation begins at the first glimpse of Old Joe, white-haired and sympathetic. How long until he croaks, leaving Jenna the pie shop and a check for $200,000? This predictable financial windfall comes at the hospital, hours after Jenna has given birth.
Empowered by her financial boon and postpartum love endorphins, she says goodbye to both her despicable husband and the adulterous doctor. The closing scene has Jenna as a small business owner skipping down the road with a toddler. It's my favorite ending: Swallow your fair share of bitter pills and rest assured money and motherhood will solve everything.
Despite the impressive animation and comic timing, something about Ratatouille rubbed me the wrong way. Michael Pollan says, "for any animal, happiness seems to consist in the opportunity to express its creaturely character -- its essential pigness or wolfness or chickenness."
In the history of animated rats on film, Templeton in Charlotte's Web (1973) best exemplifies true ratness during his multihour binge at the country fair. "A fair is a veritable smorgasbord orgasbord orgasbord ... That's where a rat can glut, glut, glut, glut!" sings Templeton, as he heaves his bulging stomach over the fence.
Remy the rat chef takes pride in having evolved beyond his inner Templeton, shunning the usual rubbish diet in favor of gourmet fare. And so we follow a unique, talented, snobby rat. But his crusade extends to his brethren who continue to eat garbage and express their true ratness. By the end of the movie we see converted rats dining on cheese platters at a mini-restaurant. Like Eliza Doolittle, and yet, not.
The trifecta of food films wouldn't be complete without the saccharine romantic comedy No Reservations. Catherine Zeta-Jones' apron remains unsullied. When there's a hunky chef, there's romance. When there's a pillow fight, there are feathers. When there's tiramisu, there's a sultry dab of cream on the corner of the mouth just waiting to be retrieved.
The Boston Globe's assessment sums up the movie nicely: "No Reservations remains as decorous as a magazine spread. No eggs get broken, all the souffles rise on time, and no one ever has to do the dishes."
The most nuanced food scenes of the summer are to be found in an unlikely film, The Golden Door. A Sicilian family makes its way to America, buoyed by images of prosperity: rivers of milk, dog-sized chickens, carrots as big as canoes. The new immigrants sit down to a place setting of sturdy porcelain dinnerware at their first meal in America in the Ellis Island Dining Room. The protagonist takes a bite of bread. "It tastes like a cloud," he says.
And it's here I teared up, thinking of the significance of America's fraught history of government-sponsored hospitality, both for the immigrants who've crossed our borders and the detainees at Guantánamo being fed their three culturally appropriate meals. The Golden Door reminded me that, especially with food, the truth is always more affecting than overwrought Hollywood fiction.
This story originally appeared in the Philadelphia Weekly.