My Favorite Food Movie: Defending Your Life


Favorite food movies are like days of the week; for all intents and purposes, there are only seven of them. 1. Ratatouille; 2. Eat Drink Man Woman; 3. Tampopo; 4. Chocolat; 5. Babette’s Feast; 6. Big Night; 7. Like Water For Chocolate. [This Serious Eats thread seems to confirm that.]

I don’t want to ruffle any feathers, but as much as I like many of the movies on that list, none of them really capture what it is about food that I love. It wasn’t until this weekend, really, when we popped in one of my favorite movies of all time, “Defending Your Life” with Albert Brooks, that I realized that this movie–a movie about life after death–may in fact be my favorite food movie of all time, even though it’s not a movie about food.

Here’s the premise: Albert Brooks is a relatively likable ad exec who, after buying a BMW, crashes into a bus while listening to Barbra Streisand sing a synthy version of “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story” (an apt punishment, perhaps). From that point on, the movie takes place in Judgment City–a way station where your life is put on trial. Brooks’s lawyer is played by the delightful Rip Torn who explains to Brooks that his life will be evaluated over a period of several days, during which he will be asked to defend his life–convincing the judges that he got over his fears and made the most of his time on earth.

“Interesting,” you may be thinking, “but what does this have to do with food?”

Here’s the thing: while in Judgment City, you get to eat as much food as you want without any physical consequences. And the food happens to be the best of its kind in the entire universe. Now do you see why I love this movie?

Look, I’ll admit it, the food in “Defending Your Life” doesn’t look very good. When Albert Brooks is raving about the roast chicken he eats at lunch with his lawyer, the vegetables that accompany it look like they came out of a freezer. The omelet he eats at his hotel looks like it might’ve been microwaved; the cheese that the waiter pours all over his broccoli looks two steps below Velveeta. Some of you might insist that a great food movie must have great images of food. Film is a visual medium after all, is it not?

But the reason “Defending Your Life” is my favorite food movie is philosophical. The nexus of mind, body and soul is one that no one truly understands. Eating is a perfect illustration of that: when you eat a favorite dish from childhood, does it taste delicious because it’s triggering the right chemicals on your tongue? Because your brain is synching sensory information from your tongue with information in your memory bank? Or is there a spiritual component, a mysterious, mystical relationship between what we eat and who we are in the great cosmic plan?

“Defending Your Life” doesn’t have patience for a question like that but it suggests that when we shed this mortal coil, our soul still needs food. That’s saying a lot about food. That’s saying that food isn’t just about sustenance, about keeping us alive; it’s saying that food serves us in a way that’s not quantifiable, that’s not only about nutrition and longevity. It’s impossible not to delight in the zeal with which Albert Brooks eats his omelet or Meryl Streep eats her corn dog. We’re not used to seeing images of food in the afterlife, yet here it makes perfect sense. What would an afterlife be without food? Even in the grandest illustrations of heaven, with clouds and harps and beautiful angels, you very rarely see bacon. But how could it be heaven without bacon?

I love this movie because it celebrates how food makes us human. The lawyer characters don’t eat human food–Rip Torn eats the equivalent of dog food–but that’s because they’re on a new plane of consciousness. But the humans delight in their human food: when Albert Brooks goes for sushi, the man who sits next to him spent his life selling adult books. But they’re united in their love for sushi. Or, at the end of the movie, when Albert dines with Meryl at an Italian place the locals love, the waiter insists on bringing him nine pies: “One for each day you’re looking at” (how many days you’re judged on reflects how well you’ve done on Earth). The waiter character fully embodies what this movie has to say about food and being human: he smothers his guests with food and love, even if they don’t want it, because he knows the power that food has to restore us, to replenish us and, most importantly, to reflect us back to ourselves. Meryl slurps her spaghetti in this scene with abandon; Albert’s annoyed because his prosecutor is watching. Here food is a mirror and it shows us who these characters are.

Is it a stretch to say “Defending Your Life” is a great food movie? Absolutely. But it’s my choice for favorite food movie because food functions in the movie the way it does in life: it’s not the focal point, but it’s important. It’s a source of joy, of nourishment, of community. Wouldn’t heaven be a lonely place if we didn’t have to eat? And wouldn’t it be much less fun? This movie gets that and that’s why I love it. Favorite food movie, indeed.

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