17 December 2013

RIP, Peter O'Toole. Glad I Got to Review You in "Ratatouille"

Image courtesy of Picture Show Pundits
I was sorry to read of the passing of Peter O’Toole, the great old British actor I much admired in films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Stunt Man, The Ruling Class and My Favorite Year. But I was especially tickled by one film performance that many obituaries omitted: his icy Parisian restaurant critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s 2007 animated feature Ratatouille.

Aside from O’Toole’s vivid voice work, I loved the fact that -- six-year-old-movie spoiler alert -- the chef/hero, a rat from the provinces who improbably ends up running a Parisian restaurant kitchen, manages to win over Ego’s hard-hearted professional spoilsport with an artfully-prepared Provençal comfort-food dish that hits the critic’s nostalgia button.

When the film debuted, I was writing only restaurant reviews and food/drink features for alt-weekly Boston’s Weekly Dig; doing a film review was a lark. As it happened, I loved the movie, even though its depiction of restaurants critics is a bit problematic.

The Dig redesigned its website in the summer of 2007 and in the process accidentally blew up its online archives, so I’m running it again here.
RIP, Mr. O’Toole. It’s not the size of the life, but the size of the liver.

From Boston’s Weekly Dig, 27 June 2007

There’s a rat in me kitchen, thank goodness
Review by MC Slim JB

When the Dig asked me to provide a Chowhound’s take on Ratatouille – Pixar’s new computer-animated feature about a rat who aspires to be a great chef – I thought, what business does a food writer have reviewing movies? But as a restaurant habitué and cinephile, I’ve noticed the worlds of film and food have much in common. They’re collaborative efforts: a film’s scenarist, director, actors and other contributors mirror a restaurant’s chef, maître’d, servers, et. al. Enjoyment of each requires a couple of hours’ time and benefits from comfy seats and boon companions. Whether dining or viewing is the main event, discussing it afterward is part of the fun.

As you might expect, I love food-themed movies. I went in prepared to measure Ratatouille against the greats of the genre. It’s up against some stiff competition. My all-time favorite is Tampopo (1985, Japan), in which a trucker helps a young widow save her failing ramen stand by guiding her to the quintessential noodle soup recipe. It both respects and satirizes genre films, movie lovers and obsessive foodies, and it features some jaw-dropping scenes that deliriously conflate the pleasures of food and sex.

Another standout is Big Night (1996), in which two immigrant brothers struggle to keep their authentic Italian restaurant afloat in philistine-saturated 1950s New Jersey. The climactic feast, prepared for a VIP who never shows, looks like the giddiest, tastiest dinner party ever, while the wordless final scene is a lyrical reminder of how cooking and sharing a meal can express love and forgiveness.
Does Ratatouille belong in this rarified company?

It certainly has the bona fides. The film got the foodie community buzzing by hiring Thomas Keller – chef/owner of The French Laundry and Per Se, two of America’s mostly highly regarded restaurants – as a consultant. Keller assisted the filmmakers’ painstaking efforts to realistically re-create the look of a Parisian haute cuisine restaurant, how its kitchen works, and especially its cuisine. Co-writer/director Brad Bird – of The Iron Giant (1999) and The Incredibles (2004) – has created a hero any food obsessive can identify with.

Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a rat with a hypersensitive nose, a refined palate and dreams of culinary greatness. He admires human cooking and covets people-food, to the bemusement of his garbage-scavenging family. Separated from them during an emergency evacuation of their nest in the French countryside, he lands in Paris in the kitchen of Gusteau’s, a down-at-the-heels fancy restaurant. The ghost of the late Gusteau himself (Brad Garrett), whose cookbooks and cooking shows have made him Remy’s hero, pops up periodically as mentor and conscience.

Remy forges a symbiotic relationship with the kitchen’s garbage boy, Linguini (Lou Romano), a clumsy doofus utterly bereft of cooking skills. Like Cyrano turning an inarticulate hunk into a silver-tongued Romeo, Remy becomes Linguini’s literal puppet master, making him a talented cook by proxy. With the rat guiding his actions, Linguini earns acclaim for himself and the enmity of the gnomish, scheming Skinner (Ian Holm), the restaurant’s current chef/owner.

Remy and Linguini’s other antagonist, restaurant critic Anton Ego (imperiously voiced by Peter O’Toole) may cause food writers everywhere to squirm, and not just because he looks like a refugee from Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. The real affront is how the film misrepresents their profession. Ego’s a pompous aesthete, insufferably certain of his power and infallible taste. Wait, that’s not the error: it’s his announcement that he’ll dine at Gusteau’s the following evening to review it. I know that every local restaurateur recognizes the critics from Boston Magazine and the Boston Herald, ensuring they get fabulous meals, but good critics still cultivate anonymity, seeking the same treatment as their readers.

That’s a quibble in a film where the food looks so fabulous, the culinary technique so true to life. Ironically, another false note belongs to Keller, who designed the film’s dishes – most notably the titular specialty that Remy creates to impress Ego. Unlike most of Remy’s soulful, instinctive cooking, his ratatouille is a fussy, post-modern abstraction of the humble French peasant stew. Looking like a Bundt cake made of poker chips, ringed by a careful smear of sauce and crowned with a tiny sliver of basil, it’s the least appetizing entrée in the movie.

Mercifully, Ratatouille eschews the obnoxious pop-culture riffing that has plagued recent animated films, which should help it age much better than anything involving Robin Williams. The CG looks gorgeous: wet rat fur is a lovingly rendered as the sleek, Anna Karina-esque bob worn by Colette (Janeane Garofalo), the kitchen brigade’s feisty lone female cook. I’m grateful that Remy and his clan aren’t Disney-cute; they look especially rat-like when running for their lives, as they frequently must do, since most of the human characters loathe them.

Ratatouille features thrilling action sequences, abundant slapstick, nefarious intrigue, comic misunderstandings, a romantic subplot, lovely Parisian scenery, and ghostly homilies about daring to follow your dreams, however improbable. I particularly enjoyed Colette’s Anthony Bourdain-like description of Skinner’s dubious kitchen crew, as well as Remy’s musings on the ecstasies of well-matched flavors. Even non-foodie grownups should find Ratatouille funny, exciting and moving. With any luck,
it will also inspire them to cook better, and maybe eat a little less garbage.