This Looks Terrible! Cook-Off! (2007/2017)
I’ve written about a lot of terrible-looking stuff for This Looks Terrible! Jesus, I wrote about a fucking politics-themed Pauly Shore comedy special. That was quite poor. But in the relatively short, not particularly distinguished-looking history of This Looks Terrible! nothing has ever looked quite as terrible as Cook Off!
I’d be hard pressed to imagine an uglier cover than Cook Off!’s DVD box, which uglies up stars like Wendy McLendon-Covey (of Reno 911 and token white woman in black comedies fame), Diedrich Baeder and Melissa McCarthy to the point of unrecognizability. Christ, they barely even look human. They look more like evil trolls than human beings. McLendon-Covey is a lovely woman. In Cook Off! she looks like a cross between Kate McKinnon and a soggy slice of Wonder Bread.
The Cook Off!’s poster looks unusually terrible but the most terrible-looking aspect of it is easily the year that it was made: 2007. Yep, 2007. As in eleven fucking years ago. As in, we hadn’t even had our first black President yet, let alone our first clearly insane and idiotic Commander-in-Chief.
Eleven fucking years! That was an eternity ago. Christ, smart phones were barely a thing back then! Why on earth did it take the movie eleven years to receive a direct-to-video burial? I honestly have no idea. Bridesmaids instantly catapulted Melissa McCarthy into superstardom in 2011 and yet it still somehow took six more years for a Melissa McCarthy movie to secure even a direct-to-video release.
Cook Off! ironically celebrates a particularly stomach-churning section of White Trash Americana: hillbilly cuisine, a nutrient-deficient but cheese and fat-saturated field of cookery that’s as tacky and excessive as the personalities and wardrobes of the film’s cast of characters, a kooky collection of oddballs and egotists all competing to win the one million dollar grand prize for a cooking contest thrown by a company whose products just barely constitute food.
In a manner nakedly derivative of the films of Christopher Guest (this is that one low-budget, clearly improvised mockumentary that worships nakedly at the altar of Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman and the like), The Cook-Off! introduces us to a cross-section of broad stereotypes played by wildly over-qualified ringers, many from the cast of Mad TV or Reno 911.
From snowy Minnesota, land of Fargo and the ear-drum-punishing nasal upper Midwestern nasal whine, we have a pair of Lutheran sisters, one dowdy and repressed and played by co-writer Wendy McLendon-Covey, the other married to a clearly gay man played by Gary Anthony Williams. You expect at least one male character to be a flamboyant, clearly closeted character in a movie like this (Think Christopher Guest in Waiting for Guffman, or rather the dozens upon dozens of films, like Cook-Off!, that shamelessly rip it off) but Cook-Off! doesn’t even wait five minutes to trot out this mockumentary cliche.
This is a hoary and hackneyed trope but Cook-Off! does something unusual with it. It plays it as much as drama as broad comedy. Indeed, Thompson’s character, an African-American who thinks he’s Swedish because he was adopted by Swedish parents, becomes instantly more dignified the moment he accepts himself and his sexuality.
The Cook-Off! is the inverse of tactile foodie cinema like Like Water for Chocolate. If the goal of most movies about food is to make audience’s mouths water in anticipation, The Cook-Off seems more intent on making viewers want to projectile vomit any time a stomach-churning insult to the Gods of Cooking appears onscreen.
Boy, does this get old fast. You can only think to yourself, “Yeah, that looks disgusting” so many times before the “stop” button starts to look awfully appealing.
Thankfully, around twenty minutes into Cook Off! something strange and unexpected happened: I started enjoying myself. Part of it had to do with the ridiculously over-stuffed nature of the cast. Stephen Root as the scion of the family behind the competition, whose commitment to his company’s products has landed him in bed following a quadruple bypass surgery! Todd Glass as a reporter! Stevie Little as a mascot coping unsteadily with his costume’s limitations! Cedric Yarbrough, one of a number of Reno 911 alums, as the novelty singer behind “Living La Vida Low Carb”! Gavin McLeod, who I vaguely recall dying decades ago, as Gavin McLeod! Markie Post! Marcia Wallace as Marcia Wallace! Pretty much half of MAD TV and half of Reno 911!
One actor who does not figure particularly prominently in the culinary shenanigans is Melissa McCarthy, whom I like (I even gave Tammy a good review) but who can be a little much sometimes. Despite being prominently billed and featured in that unspeakable travesty of a DVD image, McCarthy barrels into the film deep into its second act wearing a shapeless sweatshirt reading "Junior college" and the saddest deflated perm in film history, makes an intermittently amusing spectacle of herself, then exits the film never to return about ten minutes later. The film’s marketing makes it look like she plays a major role when fucking Markie Post has more screen time than the box-office superstar.
Sure, Cook Off feels unmistakably like Mad TV paying tribute to Christopher Guest but Mad TV had a lot of talented people grace its cast through the years, many of whom can be found in the cast here.
Cook Off follows a dynamic familiar for mockumentaries in the Christopher Guest mold. It begins by introducing us to a flurry of colorful stereotypes living lives that are very transparently rooted in lies. There is, for example, Del Crawford (Bader), a laconic Southern gentleman (that’s a nice word for hillbilly) living a twofer lie: he’s a closeted homosexual but he’s also pretending to be a baker and cook as a way of getting around rules forbidding his three time champion of a wife from competing.
Most actors would go big and flamboyant with a character like that but Bader goes the opposite way, savvily underplaying him as an unintelligent but deceptively sly opportunist devoted to doing the bare minimum of what needs to be done to get what he wants, which in this case is the prize money and opportunity to be his true self in gay bars when he's away from the missus.
In Cook-Off! like Guest’s movies and their army of imitators, the stress and strain involved in participating in a central competition or production reveals the true, underlying nature of the people involved. By the end of the competition, flawed, self-loathing characters have come to accept themselves and their true natures.
It’s a formula to be sure, with a very familiar format and structure, but in the hands of the right people, it’s a formula that can produce scattered laughs even when the whole doesn’t work. I would never encourage anyone to run out and experience Cook-Off! for themselves, particularly since the film is being marketed, peculiarly enough, by its stomach-churning hideousness, and less unusually, by the presence of box-office megastar and American treasure Melissa McCarthy, who has, frankly, done better work in the past.
Weirdly enough, Cook-Off! over-sells both elements. It begins with a lot of snarky, misanthropic, classist jabs at the unforgivable vulgarity of poor people and their gross food but builds into an intermittently amusing Christopher Guest knock-off with more genuine laughs than comedies that did not spend over a decade maturing like a store-bought Moscato on Lionsgate’s shelf.
I was pleasantly surprised by Cook Off, in part because it is nowhere near as deeply, even viscerally unpleasant as its cover makes it appear. But primarily I was surprised by Cook Off! because everything about it other than the cast made it look so prohibitively terrible. Considering how dreadful Cook-Off! looks on paper, I’m blown away simply by it not being terrible. In this context, being mildly amusing and fairly watchable (although I would trim 15 minutes off that 98 minute running time) represents something of a minor miracle.
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