'Cook Off': Film Review

Screengrab/Lionsgate Movies
Makes 'Waiting for Guffman' look like Ozu.
11/17/2017

Ten years after its festival debut, Cathryn Michon's mock-doc ensemble film gets a theatrical premiere.

A Christopher Guest ripoff bad enough it might inspire the mock-doc auteur to regret his inventions for a moment or two, Cook Off piles some better-than-this comedians into a culinary competition whose dishes look as unpalatable as the film itself. Begging complaints about the number of chefs in this production's kitchen, the film mostly seems to boil down to one more instance in which producers shouldn't have trusted the originator of source material — in this case, writer Cathryn Michon, whose book The Grrl Genius Guide to Life inspired this film — to get behind the camera. Opening in limited theatrical release after sitting on a shelf for 10 whole years, the pic will rely on streaming for any business it does; there, castmembers like Melissa McCarthy will likely draw in unwary viewers.

McCarthy's role is limited here, despite her front-and-center placement in marketing materials. Instead, the movie Xeroxes the Best in Show playbook, introducing an ensemble of wildly disparate contestants and spreading its attention liberally among them.

Slightly more attention, as you'd expect, goes to the character played by co-writer/co-director/co-producer/co-editor Michon, whose Sharon Solfest is a Minnesota Lutheran whose day job is selling religion-themed "marital aids." She and sister Pauline (Wendi McLendon-Covey, a much more seasoned comic actor, who helped with the script) have both entered an annual contest thrown by Van Rookle Farms, though both expect Sharon to win. Sharon's longtime fiance Lars (Gary Anthony Williams) owns a doll shop called The Happy Closet, and if you can't guess why he's dragging his feet on the way to the altar, well, Cook Off is about to reheat a freezer full of dumb jokes about in-denial homosexuality for your edification.

Other contestants include a man who looks like he's never held a spatula in his life (he's a stand-in for a cook who's not eligible to enter); a mother-daughter pair of realtors; and an aging black matriarch whose family has the honor of embodying several tired racial stereotypes Michon has saved for a rainy day. All these purported cooks specialize in the kind of preservative-stuffed dishes you'd gasp at if you encountered them at a pot luck: A typical entry, no kidding, is called "That Time of the Month Crab Puffs."

Most faux documentaries traffic in broad gags and caricature, but Michon and her colleagues seem not to have noticed the wit and timing that make the successful ones work. The picture lacks rhythm both within its scenes and in its overall structure, plodding forward in hopes that one of the underused performers in its cast will ad-lib a decent joke. If they did, it was edited out. Production and costume design are as self-consciously garish as the characterizations, which in this case serves only to further challenge viewers' gag reflexes.

Production company: Surprise Hit
Distributor: Lionsgate Premiere
Cast: Cathryn Michon, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, Gary Anthony Williams, Niecy Nash, Diedrich Bader, Stephen Root, Sam Pancake
Directors: Cathryn Michon, Guy Shalem
Screenwriters: Cathryn Michon, Wendi McLendon-Covey, W. Bruce Cameron
Producers: W. Bruce Cameron, Derek Anderson, Victor Kubicek, Cathryn Michon
Executive producers: Sheri Kelton, Randy Mendelsohn, Seth Renov
Director of photography: Bruce Dickson
Production designer: Brian O'Hara
Costume designer: Patricia Peppard
Editors: Mallory Gottlieb, Michael Mees, Cathryn Michon
Composer: Joel Beckerman
Casting director: Bob Krakower

Rated R, 98 minutes