The Food Guide To Love
Romantic comedies, once the ever persistent darlings of the average cinema line-up of a weekend, could be said to have been in decline for a few years, with a lack of real stand-out examples. The age of classics like When Harry Met Sally is long gone. Recent efforts seem cheaper and less inventive, and don’t get much of the same attention that they would have even a decade ago. The comedy genre has been recently dominated by a more adult brand of humour, exemplified by things like The Hangover franchise and We’re The Millers, that some might think are better suited to the times we live in.
But the genre, or sub-genre if you prefer, isn’t quite dead yet. Far from it really. They still get churned out, only the consistent quality is in question. Now, for the first time in a while, it’s Ireland’s turn to have a go. I caught an advanced screening of The Food Guide To Love, a combined Irish/Spanish production, at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, the film itself being on general release in a few months.
Celebrity food blogger and all round taste expert Oliver (Richard Coyle) can’t make his love life match his success with cooking, with all of his relationships falling to pieces after six months. Enter Spaniard Bibiana (Leonor Watling), also with a rap sheet of terrible relationships. Drawn to each other despite some gigantic differences, the two navigate the modern streets of Dublin, Oliver’s fractious relationship with his parents and Bibiana’s strongly held humanitarian beliefs.
More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from this point on. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.
I can stand romcoms more than the average guy I think, but even I must decry the sheer predictableness of the genre. Just look at the blurb above again, and tell me if it’s really something you haven’t mostly heard before, just with names and locations changed. I mention this because some of the film’s production crew were present at the screening I attended, and claimed that The Food Guide To Love was more than a typical romcom, that it was something deeper.
They were only partly right really. The truth is that The Food Guide To Love follows most of the required beats for the kind of film that it is, and the kind of genre that it is part of. The leads have the expected “meet cute”, in this case Oliver getting kicked out of a girlfriend’s apartment naked and bumping into Bibiana on the street. They both have their respective issues: he’s a commitment phobe and she’s a sucker for damaging relationships. It takes a while for them to get together. Past problems and consistent behaviours come to haunt them. There are wacky friends and minor characters to distract. There is some occasional warmth and depth away from the main plot. There are fights and brake ups and make ups and a (sort of) happy ending. Yadda yadda yadda. There is really nothing too amazingly special or unique about The Food Guide To Love in terms of its general structure.
I mean, just take that “Meet cute”. It has all of the classic hallmarks too it. The unlikely situation, the physical comedy angle, the man looking like a bit of a moron (but in a charming way), the woman being initially unimpressed by him, he pursues her, etc. Meet cutes are one of the most predictable aspects of any kind of romantic story of course – it’s a very hard impulse for writers to resist, and why should they in the end? – but the nature of it in The Food Guide To Love does speak to a certain lack of ideas for really engrossing cinema.
Where The Food Guide To Love does try and switch things up is in its pacing, and not in a very good way. There are plenty of structural issues throughout, in terms of act progression and the like, as sometimes you wish some things would speed up and at others you want things to slow down. Suffice to say that the creators look like they are trying to break up the standard three act structure into something new, but the new thing isn’t that great. They still follow the common thread for films of this type, with everything that comes with it, but the first act is too long and the third act is too short.
That basic thread is the evolving relationship of Oliver and Bibiana. The Food Guide To Love does a decent enough job with this, actually trying to inject some realism in the whole affair, with the film taking place over a large enough timeframe (before a huge jump forward in the last few minutes). Rather than the whole thing being a typically whirlwind romance, directors Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri prefer to show the gradual stages of a relationship forming – friendship, physical beginnings, greater commitment, moving in, clashes, break-ups, make-ups. The frequent skips help to refresh the story whenever such a thing is required, and seeing this relationship grow, blossom, wither and sort of blossom again is one of the better parts of The Food Guide To Love.
Still, the first act is very slow, perhaps too wrapped up in thoughts of making this a great romance story rather than a simple romcom. The early stages of the relationship do provide some half-decent bits of comedy, which is grand, but also includes some really insipid stuff, like a food fight scene with a very inevitable ending.
All this leads into the major point of the film, which is Oliver confronting some of his commitment/relationship longevity issues when he actually moves in with this woman. Haunted by the spectres of having a child and being monogamous, he inevitably cheats on her in a spectacularly awful manner, and then covers it up. This is one of the only aspects of The Food Guide To Love that really bothered me, as its hard to root for the two of them to get together in the end when the male lead has been shown to be such a terrible person, something that is largely glossed over as we head into the third act. Bibiana does leave him, but by the time the credits roll, it’s like it’s all forgotten. Oliver isn’t that good a person really – there are other things, like the way he treats his parents – so it was just a little hard to buy him as a sympathetic protagonist.
I suppose those sections of severance between the two are supposed to provide some kind of redemption for the Oliver character, but his moves towards such a thing are piecemeal and meaningless – Bibiana didn’t leave him because he is a meat-eater. The truth is that I felt a large part of this third act was ill-formed and smelled a little of desperation – it jumped from plot to sub-plot to an ill-judged finale very quickly, almost as if they wanted to distract the audience from Oliver’s larger flaws and didn’t quite know how to wrap up all of their loose threads effectively. Oliver is, of course, the main character, but by this point the Bibiana counterpart was really getting gut-checked for screentime, which damaged my interest in her fate.
That would be OK though, if the film ended on that scene of them together outside of Dublin Zoo, Oliver finally opening up to her properly and the two parting ways on decent terms. It would have been sudden, but more realistic and satisfying. Instead, what we got was appalling: a nonsensical jump ten years into the future. Oliver suddenly has a son with a mother we don’t see. Bibiana has a daughter the same age. Their eyes meet just after Oliver had been telling his son about her. Let’s just forget that they don’t really look like they have aged ten years.
It was shockingly dumb and so, so unnecessary. The Food Guide To Love did not need this kind of tacked-on happy ending/epilogue, straight from the playbook of one J.K Rowling. It speaks volumes of a writing/production team that was fearful of thinking outside the box and ending their tale on a more ambitious note, without such a neat and tidy resolution. When endings are bad, it really does have a terrible effect on your overall opinion of the films quality, since it’s the last thing you see and the point freshest in your mind as you leave the cinema. And The Food Guide To Love had a bad one.
But The Food Guide To Love does have one crucial redeeming feature. The sub-plot involving Oliver’s relationship with his father and mother is only part of a few scenes, but was executed really well. Oliver’s a man of modern Ireland, his father is a Dublin dweller from another time. At no point in their scenes together are they shown to have gotten on, exemplified by Oliver’s disgust at the rather putrid looking coddle dish, a sort of sausage and potato stew, his parents repeatedly serve to him (I am informed that the dish was made to look worse than it actually is for the film, for any coddle lovers reading). He’s a culinary mastermind, while his father exults in basic grub. In a larger sense then, Oliver is ambitious and wants to experience the world, his father is happier at home with the familiar.
That leads up to the father’s sudden passing. Oliver discovers his father still followed his career with fondness even as he openly declared some aversion for his son’s lifestyle, and this causes a sudden breakdown in Oliver, the best acted scene in the film total. Much of the structure of this scene was filled with cliché, but it still spoke to me rather vividly. Men like Oliver are not so far from me, a “Jackie Charlton” generation born between 1988 and 1994, as Ireland was changing rapidly, people who grew up in a world very far removed from that of their parents. In this country, especially with sons and fathers, you will find a resulting stiffness in relations, one that I sometimes think is more pronounced than it is in other countries. Things are bottled up and left unsaid, since both parties seem so alien to the other. The Food Guide To Love captures that kind of feeling magnificently, and the pay-off for such a sub-plot, while coming at a slightly odd moment, is very good.
But then I have to suddenly move to another criticism. One other sub-plot involves Oliver’s best friend Simon, who meets a girl, gets married and has a child with her. This is standard romcom fair, and The Food Guide To Love follows the train tracks particularly well – said guy starts as a confirmed bachelor who isn’t interested in commitment, and next thing you know he has the complete package, a direct contrast to the more freewheeling “hero” (it is one of those great clichés in film. If a chauvinistic male character has a best friend or a brother, especially an older best friend or brother, that character will be married with kids). The problem with The Food Guide To Love is that this character is introduced startlingly late in the production, well into the second act, and everything involving him is rushed and hurried along. He seems like an important character to Oliver, but it’s like the production team had no time for him in the first 40 or so minutes. Were there actor/shooting issues maybe? Whatever the reason, it was a bizarre exclusion.
Still, at least The Food Guide To Love has some decent chemistry between the two leads, but it’s not without its problems. Bibiana isn’t a great character really, basically just reacting to the stuff Oliver does and I never felt like she had a great deal of agency in the process. Oliver gets shown up to be a bit of a bastard repeatedly, yet remains the hero of the piece, and at times it can be hard to extract any kind of humour from that and from the way that Bibiana just sort of puts up with it. There are valiant attempts to flesh her out and give her particular interests, desires, aims and flaws, which is great. But that’s all just ancillary – when the character is acting in a manner which makes her seem unnecessarily weak and shallow in some respects, then you can’t say that she’s a great female character. This is not an equal footing romcom. It doesn’t have to be, but I’ve always felt that this genre is better when both leads get to stand on the same terms and dictate the pace and the action together, as opposed to one of them, nearly always the man of course, being dominant. That dominance by Oliver in terms of plot and dictation of pace does sort of put a dampener on their relationship for a viewing audience.
But will The Food Guide To Love make you laugh? In parts is the answer. Unlike other Irish comedy productions it isn’t wrapped up in the culture of the land it’s filmed in (like, say, The Guard) and this accessibility improves it as a romcom. International audiences should have no problem with The Food Guide To Love on that score. Oliver’s consistent romantic disasters, a short but excellent send up of Irish Famine memorials, a hardcore animal welfare group meeting and Simon Delaney’s character will have you tittering, but there are plenty of other intended moments of humour that might fall flat. The Food Guide To Love lacks any kind of real wit to put it another way, and the humour of the entire thing seems to suffer a deficiency of certain ambition, like other parts of the production.
But all of that makes it sound like a dud when it comes to plot, which is not entirely fair. There are plenty of parts that work, and The Food Guide To Love does provide a suitably through examination of the relationship between food and sex, the two driving forces of Oliver’s life, another redeeming aspect. It’s just that the flaws really do weigh rather heavily on the whole thing, enough that The Food Guide To Love really needs to be hitting it out of the park when it comes to its other elements.
Coyle is the better of the two leads, though his Irish accent needs a bit of work. He has that bubbly, irrepressible charm to him, which worked so well in the likes of Coupling and Going Postal, and he nails the more serious scenes with gusto. His breakdown in front of his father’s body was a very gripping and surprisingly touching moment in the environs of a film like this, with the production team present at the screening I watched mentioning that the actor’s brother had recently passed. Obviously a bit of a follow on from that. It was a powerful example of the craft. That’s not to lessen Coyle’s good work elsewhere, it just wasn’t on the same level.
Less good is Watling, who I struggled to really buy in the role of Bibiana at times. Foreign actors frequently have trouble getting the right emotions and performances across in English and that’s happened here, with a few scenes where she appears somewhat inept next to the more capable Coyle. The material that she has to work with wasn’t as good. She had her moments, not least that group dinner scene late on, but I couldn’t really say that I was super impressed with what she was doing throughout The Food Guide To Love. She’s the lesser partner in the film’s main duo, by design of the creators, and her performance reflects that.
The supporting cast is limited and mostly introduced at a very late stage. Simon Delaney gets in a few jokes in every scene, David Wilmot impresses late on as an unkempt environmental activist and Lorcan Cranitch and Ger Ryan are excellent as Oliver’s reserved parents. But this small cast supporting the main two never really gets enough of an opportunity in my eyes, especially Delaney and Cranitch, all limited to a very small number of scenes. Romcoms don’t have to be just these two person affairs, and they shouldn’t be.
Visually, it’s nice to see Dublin, a city that can be very beautiful on occasion, shown off like this on screen, away from the usual smog that I have often seen accompanied with it on film. The decision is taken to avoid the usual landmarks and focus on other areas, like Smithfield for example, which is a good choice. Harari and Pelegri do a good job of it, with simple camerawork for a simple production, nothing too flashy or crazy. I suppose you could say, again, that there is a certain lack of ambition there, but this isn’t The Godfather.
There a few especially notable shots, like a recurring look at Lansdowne Road/Aviva Stadium in the background of Oliver’s childhood home, illustrating the changes Ireland goes through during his lifetime, a sequence set in a pitch black restaurant (that was a little hit and miss if I’m being honest) and a finale based around a chocolate chess set. There are a few odd moments too though, not least an introduction that, with giant posters of Oliver being spotted everywhere in Dublin, makes him seem like some kind of fascist dictator as opposed to a popular food blogger. One of the nicer visual things is Oliver’s apartment, a well set-up D4-style affluence pad, which ends up getting largely wrecked in the later stages of the film.
The script is good for the most part, with only some of the cast’s delivery ruining it, bringing a mix of humour nicely in with the solemnity of other moments. The better jokes are the more subtle riffs on Irish culture – the Famine art exhibition Bibiana goes to for example, an amazing send up of that sort of thing. But beyond that I can’t really say that the wordplay was especially spectacular. Oliver does get some very good lines, when he contrasts good food with bad sex, or some of his last lines, when he compares love to movie popcorn – you stuff it into your face as fast as possible, and then are somehow surprised when it’s gone. In fact, that last line was the one really brilliant bit of writing in The Food Guide To Love, and would have been a perfect closing moment, if just a bit of a comedown. Not to be. Again, a lack of ambition or desire to be that little bit different.
Musically, The Food Guide To Love is competent and little more, just about everything you’d expect from the auditory side of a romcom. It’s barely even worth noting really.
Theme wise, The Food Guide To Love isn’t a shallow movie and has some things to say on a few topics. The obvious one is love of course, with commitment a close second, which The Food Guide To Love approaches from a fairly realist place – it isn’t perfect and not everything works out (at least until that awful final scene). Oliver approaches love and relationships as something that’s practically secondary to his real passion for food, and fails to understand when things repeatedly don’t work out for him. Cooking is easy, you follow a recipe. You can’t do that with women. Bibiana can’t drag herself away from bad relationships, like someone who can’t give up a food that’s bad for them.
Put them together and sparks fly, and there is clearly some deeper connection. But for Oliver, whose view on relationships was based on what he perceived as an arrangement of “duty” between his parents, can’t stick to it, falling all too easily into the cheating game, and then can’t bring himself to confess. The love and the relationship disintegrates, with only the death of Oliver’s father bringing any kind of rapprochement. It’s worse because Oliver’s mother chastises him for his perceptions of her marriage, which has loving and stable, if just not incredibly passionate. Oliver’s opinions on commitment and relationships were based on a very large misinterpretation, and he allows this to destroy what he has with Bibiana (and much of his own life, in the process). He also had a similar problem with his father in general, but he was only one half of the problem there. I suppose The Food Guide To Love main point really is as simple, and effective as “You don’t know what you’ve got until its gone.”
The problem of course, and I know I’m harping on about this, is the ending, which ruins much of this theme work. Somehow the two meet and again, and it appears to be a happy ending, the prelude to a deeper reunion. They even both have kids. I suppose it’s perfectly possible that Bibiana is married or that things wouldn’t work out, but the implied happiness of that ending still rankles with me. It would be like Oliver’s father surviving his heart attack and the two having a reconciliation. Having spent the majority of its running time telling us that love isn’t a perfect smooth ride, The Food Guide To Love ends like it actually sort of is.
Overall, I found The Food Guide To Love to be little more than acceptable. It isn’t a unique example of the genre like its creators claimed it was, unless they were just referring to the ethnicities of the leads. Parts of it are stilted and the female lead could be doing better work with a better character, but other aspects of The Food Guide To Love are just about good enough to make it passable, just about. If you’re in the mood for a romcom that is. Everyone else probably wouldn’t be too impressed.
(All images are copyright of Haut et Court).