My Favorite Food Movie: Defending Your Life

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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.

29 comments

  1. What a great post, Adam! I love this movie, and never thought of the food that way at all. Next time it is on I will watch it in a whole new light.

    You left out “Babette’s Feast” which is a spectacular food movie.

  2. Adam, I loved Defending Your Life but I never thought of it that way. You are so right though, and I love that notion.

    When Harry Met Sally actually has the same sort of thing going on. The way Sally likes her food helps define her and it is part of why Harry loves her. And I love the end when they are describing their awesome wedding cake.

  3. My favorite food movie is Chocolat – the luscious Johnny Dep and chocolate. What more could a hot, 50-year old single chick like me want?

    The first time I watched Chocolat was with my daughter. She had just been released from jail, so I paused the movie and ran to the kitchen.

    I made the most luxurious hot chocolate with half and half and semi-sweet chocolate. She was thrilled when I brought it to the living room.

    It’s a great memory of our celebrating her release.

  4. One of my favorite movies too, but never thought of it as a “food” movie! I think there’s a market out there for more foodie movies, there shouldn’t be such a short list.

  5. I agree. This is the kind of movie that you come across on a Sunday afternoon flipping through the channels. Every time, it sucks me in. I love it!

  6. Funny, I just saw Defending Your Life for the first time on TV randomly a couple weeks ago. It is one of my boyfriend’s favorite movies, more for the theme of being an ordinary guy with issues and overcoming your obstacles. But I just loved that they could eat and eat and eat and never gain any weight. I can only hope heaven is like that!

  7. I wrote a huge missive about this movie long ago. Spectacular. “OHMYGODNINEDAYS! You betta have more sake.”

  8. I agree about it being a food movie. I love the movie for many reasons, but invariably when I bring it up in conversation it has to do with the food: eating whatever you want and as much of it as you want. I’ve also been known to quote the waiter in the restaurant with “I’m-a gonna bring you nine pies.” My son doesn’t understand why I say that to him when he skins his knee, but it makes me smile.

  9. No movie has ever made me hungrier than Super Size Me – after an hour and a half of watching french fries I wanted to eat fast food so bad! And I usually can’t stand it!

  10. AGREE. This is one of my favorite food metaphor films of all time (so is another Meryl Streep movie, Heartburn).

    My foodcentric sister and I often quote Defending Your Life–we’re especially fond of stealing:

    [big waiter, scrutinize, think]: “I likea you. I’ma gonna makea you nine pies!!”

  11. What about Spanglish? If Thomas “the freak” Keller was one of the consultants for the movie, it should be considered a “foodie movie.” Right?

  12. Anyone else sing, “That’s life/That’s how you lived it…” in the shower? “Long coma, Art. Long coma.”

  13. Yeah, but then he gets tagged for being gluttonous for enjoying that food, so it’s kind of all down hill from there…

  14. Wait…what?! no “Eating Raoul”?? heh heh, seriously though, that’s a crazy movie… and I haven’t seen “Defending Your Life” in many years, guess it’s time to update the netflix queue. My favorite food movie has got to be Tampopo or perhaps Big Night. Cheers AG!

  15. One of my favorite food movies of all times is ‘Moonstruck’ with Cher, Nicholas Cage and Olympia Dukakis. Cage is a bread baker in Little Italy. I could smell and taste the bread when I saw that movie. Then there is a scene towards the end where Dukakis is cooking eggs with red peppers for breakfast. And bread of course. Anybody else remember Moonstruck for its food?

  16. I liked the movie Todd Sweeney, the Demon Barber. My sister chiff0nade and saw it together because she has fantasies about Johnny Dep (she says that Dep makes her wet her pants).

    I loved the idea of eating people (in the meat pies) . . . kinda kinky I think.

    Chiffy’s BF “Big Bear” went with us but the management wouldn’t let him him because he had enjoyed a beer or two too many before we left the trailer park.

  17. I totally agree. This movie was always about the food for me. “Food and Self-Loathing in Purgatory.” How perfectly Albert Brooks!

  18. TAMPOPO, hands down.

    Tried to get my old fogey husband (now EX, TG) to have life imitate art but he was not into it.

    He was actually inspired to eat at McDonalds after he saw “Super Size Me.”

  19. tampopo!!

    have you seen politiki kouzina (touch of spice)?

    at least look it up…

  20. I’m not alone! The scene with Meryl Streep and the pasta always comes back to me. I was only 14 when I saw that movie, but I’ve always wished that I could taste that pasta and eat as much of it as I wanted.

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