A Distinct Lack of Seasoning
by Joel LeVangia
Through no fault of anybody’s except really my own, I happen to know more about how difficult it is to make a film than the average person. As a result, I am generally less inclined to give filmmakers a hard time. Especially when they did as good of a job as the creators of the new film Tasting Menu with the lighting, and the shot selection, and the camera work; and successfully managing costs and shooting schedule with one totally dominant location that did nothing to detract from the film.
Unfortunately, I am unable to forgive people who go through all of that effort and trouble with great technical skill – when they ultimately have nothing to say. Much better to have applied their talents to a documentary highlighting the inspiration of the film in all of its glory – Ferran Adria’s El Bulli – than to take a cardboard version of “Love, Actually” and superimpose it on a lightly fictionalized molecular-gastronomy-temple-by-the-sea locale.
The conceit that there need be no conceit has been the downfall of many a filmmaker. I’d much rather have the Coen brothers, Barry Sonnenfeld, Barry Sonnenfeld’s camera, and a ton of free time – than the sophisticated crew and beautiful location that Tasting Menu offers me.
It’s not fair, in the absence of decent writing, to criticize the actors. So, I will single out those character-creators who – like chefs in a cooking show vending machine ingredient challenge – were able to make something tasteful out of nothing. Those would be Stephen Rea (a diner), Vicenta N’Dongo (the chef), Togo Igawa and Akihiko Serikawa (the Japanese investors), and the “annoying chick” who shepherded the Japanese guys, the pediatrician, and more or less the maître ‘d. (The annoying chick who shepherded the Japanese guys, you would think, would not make this list, but she did a very hard thing – which is to be endearing and charming while being the annoying chick shepherding some Japanese guys. Her name is Marta Torné. She was great. Nice job, Marta.)
I can say this – for those people to whom El Bulli is the ultimate Grateful Dead concert opened by Phish and MC’d by Timothy Leary – this movie could have represented some certain food-centric nerd-appeal. But, incongruously, Tasting Menu gives short shrift to the food. The actors say “That’s amazing,” after they slurp their aloe-leaf margarita, but you don’t get the full geek-out that would bloom repeatedly during a night at El Bulli or El Celler de Can Roca, whose equally talented chefs consulted on the film. There is no scene in which the chef drops her welding mask to protect her eyes as she caramelizes a spiderweb. At no point does anybody run out of plutonium for the flux-capacitor, thereby dramatizing the impossibility of actually enjoying the same bite twice. Which, you know, is something you can do in movies. Almost even more so than Ferran Adria or the Roca brothers can in real life.
Look. I respect these guys who made this movie. I like what they wanted to do, I like the way they did it, and they’re clearly better at it than I am. However, they did not take the time to marry their backdrop to their storyline on a molecular level. And that, frankly, is what the movie is about – taking the time to arduously create a ridiculously complex, yet simple thing that leaves a lasting impression. They sure talked around it, but they couldn’t serve it up.
(The film opens in theaters this weekend. Photos: scenes from TASTING MENU, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.)