Saturday, April 19, 2008

THE COOK (2008) d. Gregg Simon

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

In my youth, I learned the trade of a chef, working on all the parts of the line and acquiring all of the essential skills to acquit myself effectively in the culinary world. While this served me well, helping to finance my trip through higher education, learning how to create finely crafted cuisine adds to my understanding of the artistry of life. Just as a great meal must be a combination of high quality ingredients, exceptional execution and painstaking presentation, an enjoyable movie must have all its ducks in a row if it is to work. THE COOK, starring Mark Hengst, Makinna Ridgway and Kit Paquin is a lot like an entrĂ©e where the chef has focused only on the presentation and let the rest of the effort be reminiscent of the fare at “Kemps Pan-Scrapple Goulash Stand”. It may look good, but the end result is a stomach full of something you’d rather not have ingested.

THE COOK is the story of the Lambda Epsilon Zeta sorority house and their newly hired Hungarian cook. While most of the sisters are off to Cabo San Lucas for a long weekend, eight of the sisters stick around for some well-earned debauchery. At first, the new cook’s adjustment to his surroundings seems to be marred by his complete inability to speak English. Before long, it becomes obvious that inter-cultural exchange difficulties are the least of the girls’ problems. As the weekend progresses and more sex, drugs and rock & roll are needed to sate the sisters’ desires, hotties begin to disappear, new recipes are foisted on the unsuspecting bimbos and The Cook seems to enjoying his new digs more than he ever thought.

Just as a good food critic must deconstruct a meal to examine its strengths and weaknesses, let us look at this Bouillabaisse offering that is THE COOK. Any good bouillabaisse must start with an outstanding stock as it base. The stock of THE COOK is that it wants to be a spoof of slasher films, it even references better slasher films like FRIDAY THE 13TH, and sadly it fails miserably. Each of the characters of THE COOK is a caricature of a horror movie archetype. Beyond the fact that this has been done before and done to death, most of the characters are so grating, loathsome and poorly scripted that little to no humor is generated. Just as a good stock comes from a great mix of fish and shellfish meat and bones, vegetable tops and skins and a long process of simmering out the goodness, funny scenes come from carefully considered dialogue and effective direction of a well-designed script. While there was the odd moment where a smirk rose to my lips, most of THE COOK left me as flat as it I had eaten a bouillabaisse made from a store-bought guppy stock.

The next level of crafting a superb bouillabaisse is the quality of the seafood that is used. Everyone’s bouillabaisse is different, but the essence of success stems from outstanding fish that is fresh and right for the recipe. Just as you wouldn’t use fish you found lying on the beach or some low quality, oily bottom feeder for your masterpiece, a good movie must use talented actors and actresses, fine cameramen, strong sound engineers, excellent lighting and inspired direction. THE COOK had little of these essential building blocks. The lighting, sound and camera work felt like a cutting room edition of THE REAL WORLD and I had to repeatedly remind myself I was watching a feature film and not some piece of drek from “MTV”. While Makinna Ridgway and Kit Paquin had their moments and may have some acting potential, most of the rest off the cast careened wildly between the poles of horrible overacting and The Great Stone Face. The end result was underwhelming to say the least and left me feeling like I had eaten a bouillabaisse made with “no name” brand tuna fish bought at the “17 cans for $0.99 price”. Any chef resorting to such tactics would hide his head in shame. I wonder if any of the cast and crew of THE COOK felt that way.

Finally, the last pillar of a great bouillabaisse is its flavoring components. Absolutely indispensable for success in the bouillabaisse recipe is fabulous fennel, thyme, olive oil, garlic and especially saffron. The chef that skimps on these will have a good fish stew, but it won’t be bouillabaisse. Depending on your tastes, THE COOK has some of these spices spread liberally in its formula. There are bloody slashes, cleaved skulls, tables of viscera and slabs of carved sorority babes galore. Most of it is not atmospheric and really doesn’t add a lot of humor or chilling imagery. It is just grotesque for the sake of adding grisly guts, and felt like paprika was substituted for the saffron. There is a sizable cadre of beautiful ladies in this flick, several of them in varied states of undress, many of them in steamy scenes of lesbian lovemaking. While this certainly cranks up the count on the “sinfully salacious meter”, it also felt forced. Certainly, the hotness of the actresses, despite most of them being foul-mouthed, asinine skanks, could be considered a “saving grace” of THE COOK, but it felt like another ingredient substitution had been made and that chipotle ketchup had been added to take the place of the shallots and garlic. When you make substitutions to any recipe and settle for considerably lower quality, you won’t get a good end product, and while the aesthetic ingredients of THE COOK seem like they work, in the end, the bouillabaisse turns out more like pee soup.

While I have to give THE COOK credit for having an extras menu at all, since SO many dvds today withhold this important side dish, even here THE COOK has its issues. Just as a supremely constructed bouillabaisse should be served with a crusty, artisan French bread, a dvd should have some good extras. On THE COOK, one can sample a four and a half minute “behind the scenes” featurette that plays more like a music video than a look at the making of THE COOK. There is a two and a half minute set of audition scenes of Mark Hengst. Why? Finally there is an audio commentary with producer/writer/editor Nicholas Bonomo, actor Mark Hengst and actresses Makinna Ridgway, Kit Paquin, Nina Fehren and Brooke Lenzi. At times, this commentary has its interesting anecdotes and witty quips, but most of the time it is a gab session amongst young people who are now “hip” because they’ve made a movie. If I sat down to bouillabaisse, got a wretched tuna broth, and then hoped to cleanse the palette with an artisan bread, the extras menu of this disc would be the equivalent of a hotdog roll.

There are film experiences where a slice of life is lost forever, never to be recalled. One such experience for me was the remake of THE FOG. I will never forgive the cretins who created that foul sump of ooze, the dreadful emotions I felt as I realized what a train wreck I was going to witness and the time I lost by enduring that dung ball to its close. THE COOK was NOT that bad for I had an inkling that it wasn’t going to be a “good” bad movie and it wasn’t long before my premonition was validated. If I may close with some more culinary analogies, THE COOK is a lot like going to that roadside diner somewhere far from civilization and you know that despite your intense hunger, you’re not likely to be satisfied. After walking out of that diner with a bitter taste on your tongue and a growl in your bowels, you could look at the glass as being half empty, or you could chalk it up to another life lesson that helps you to appreciate the last “melt in your mouth” steak you sat down to enjoy. THE COOK makes me thankful for the better films I’ve seen like THE ORPHANAGE and I can look ahead with the knowledge that there will be other fine occasions, cinematic and culinary, that I will be savoring soon.

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