The premise of BITTER FEAST is mapped out in the first seconds as a young boy reads from a notebook: “Man has the opportunity to play two roles in life; that of producer and that of destroyer.” In many ways, BITTER FEAST is the fantasy of any person ever to have created anything and then be the victim of criticism. There are folks who have made a living criticizing others. Having gone through art school myself, I understand the tender scars critical words can leave after throwing one’s work out for scrutiny. I also understand the irony of offering my own criticism to a film about a critic who has his own words jabbed back at him. In many ways, BITTER FEAST tries to be a biting satire about modern criticism and creativity. For the most part, the film is a successful look at these two conceptual extremes, pitting them against each other in a primal manner, but its ultimate message is murky.
James LeGros is Peter Grey, a meticulous and socially awkward celebrity chef. In the first moments of the film, we are treated to Grey’s cooking show where he grumbles through his recipes as his plucky co-host offers annoying chatter which makes the audience chuckle. Right from the get go (after a gory opener as two children—one of them Peter, we come to find out—play a game of hunter and prey in a forest with disastrous results), we see that Grey is an unhappy man. He’s successful, pompous and the public is seeing this because he soon learns that his show is being cancelled. Upon returning to his restaurant after hearing this news, Peter learns that an online critic has given him a scathing review resulting in the loss of all of his customers. Peter loses his job as top chef in the restaurant and the ball gets rolling for the film to turn into torture porn post haste.
The flip side to Peter’s (LeGros’) creative coin is Joshua Leonard’s JT Franks, a scurvy online critic who bulldogs his way through restaurants with little or no remorse for the power of his online criticism. Much like Peter, he’s an unhappy man, suffering from the loss of a child and a marriage that has never recovered from it. The problem with this scenario is that director/writer Joe Maggio doesn’t really give us a protagonist to like or root for. Both of these men are pretty despicable and while filmmakers like Neil LeBute have made a career on focusing on despicable characters (as exemplified in his excellent YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS and IN THE COMPANY OF MEN), here with BITTER FEAST, not enough is really given short of what I’ve mapped out above for the viewer to understand where all of that unhappy camperness is coming from. Because of this, the two characters are more like archetypes/cookie cutter symbols of two extremes serving only to fight one another. It makes it hard to root for one side over another, though I’m sure the filmmaker wanted this to be a criticism of critics. LeGros is so unlikable here and he gets worse as the film goes on. Sure some may get off on the revenge fantasy on display in BITTER FEAST, but any rational thinking person will see that LeGros isn’t someone to sympathize with.
My other issue with BITTER FEAST is that the ending is very lackluster and while it rings somewhat poetic, it felt like a full meal with no just desserts as JT’s character gets shoved to the wayside in order for the film to fall into slasher film trappings and have a final girl fighting the stalking monster. Joe Maggio’s stance wavers from sympathetic toward the creator to making the creator into a monster throughout the entire film, as if he wasn’t sure what to do or who to favor with this material. Maybe he’s trying to say that both creator and destroyer are assholes. Had he wanted us to sympathize with LeGros’ Peter (a la Michael Douglas in FALLING DOWN) he shouldn’t have made him seem like such a dickhead. In the end, a chance to say something really pertinent about the ying and yang of creators and critics is missed and BITTER FEAST devolves into a typical slasher/torture porn. There are ideas with sparks of greatness here. There are performances that are somewhat inspired, though ultimately unlikable. But the ending just flops aimlessly like a goldfish on a carpet gasping for air—or in this case grasping for age old clichés to ride out on.