17 December 2013

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

Image courtesy of Picture Show Pundits
I was saddened to read of the passing of Peter O’Toole, the great 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 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 a Provençal comfort-food dish that mashes the critic’s nostalgia buttons. (I confess: that same tactic has worked on me.)

When the film debuted, I was writing only restaurant reviews and food/drink features for alt-weekly Dig Boston; doing a film review was a lark. As it happened, I loved the movie, even though its depiction of food 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 fanboy and film geek, I’ve noticed the two worlds have much in common. They’re collaborative efforts: a film’s scenarist, director and actors mirror a restaurant’s chef, cooks and servers. 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.

No surprise, I love food-themed movies. I went in prepared to measure Ratatouille against the greats of the genre. My all-time favorite is Tampopo (1985, Japan), in which a trucker helps a young widow save her failing ramen stand by taking her on a quest to uncover the quintessential noodle soup recipe. It both respects and satirizes genre films, movie lovers and food dorks, and features some jaw-dropping scenes that deliriously conflate the pleasures of food and sex.

Another is Big Night (1996), in which two immigrant brothers struggle to keep their traditional Italian restaurant afloat in philistine 1950s New Jersey. The climactic feast, prepared for a VIP who never shows, is one of filmdom's giddiest, most tantalizing dinner parties, while the wordless finale is a lyrical reminder of how cooking and sharing a meal can express love and forgiveness.
Does Ratatouille belong in this rarified company?

It has some bona fides. The film got the food-nerd 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 guided the filmmakers’ painstaking efforts to realistically recreate the workings of an Escoffier-vintage kitchen brigade and its product. Meanwhile, co-writer/director Brad Bird – of The Iron Giant (1999) and The Incredibles (2004) – has created a hero any food obsessive can identify with.

That would be Remy (ingenuously voiced by alt-comedy genius Patton Oswalt), a rural rat with a hypersensitive nose, refined palate, and dreams of culinary greatness. He covets fresh people-food and emulates its cooking, to the bemusement of his trash-scavenging family. Separated from them during an emergency evacuation of their country nest, he lands in Paris in the kitchen of Gusteau’s, a once-famed, now down-at-the-heels restaurant. The ghost of the late chef Gusteau himself (Brad Garrett, sage and dolorous), 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 plongeur 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. Thus Linguini earns acclaim for himself and the envious enmity of the gnomish, scheming Skinner (a gleefully wicked 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 some of us still cultivate anonymity, seeking the same treatment as our readers.

That’s a quibble in a film where the food looks so fabulous, the milieu and technique so true to life. Ironically, another false note belongs to Keller with his design of the titular specialty that Remy creates to impress Ego. Unlike most of Remy’s soulful, instinctive cooking, Keller's 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 too-careful smear of sauce and crowned with a tiny sliver of basil, it’s the least appetizing dish 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 as lovingly rendered as the sleek, Anna Karina-esque bob worn by Colette (a winning smarty-punk performance by Janeane Garofalo), the brigade’s feisty lone female cook. I’m grateful that Remy and his clan aren’t Disney-cute; they look especially glossily, greasily gross when running for their lives, as rats frequently must do.

Ratatouille features thrilling action sequences, abundant slapstick, nefarious intrigue, screwball romance, and lovely Parisian scenery, albeit with some pat homilies about daring to follow your dreams. 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. The kids will love it, but even meat-and-potatoes grownups should find Ratatouille brisk, hilarious and moving. With any luck,
it will also inspire them to cook with a bit more passion and joy, and maybe eat a little less garbage.