The folks at the Princeton Public Library have made some pretty interesting choices for its Films for Foodies series this fall. The first of the four free screenings, which start at 6 p.m., was “Fried Green Tomatoes.” It was followed by an optional discussion with wine and tapas at Mediterra restaurant ($25), a co-sponsor of the series, and just a short walk away. That pairing will continue throughout the series.
The films chosen are not the warhorse blockbusters beloved by foodies everywhere, such as “Babette’s Feast,” “Big Night,” “Like Water for Chocolate,” and “Eat Drink Man Woman.” (That last, Ang Lee’s 1994 masterpiece, is my personal favorite.) In those flicks, food is central to the plot and to understanding the protagonists’ innermost beings. In “Fried Green Tomatoes” as well as the upcoming films in the series — “The Joy Luck Club,” “Waitress,” and “Christmas in Connecticut” — the role of food is more a framework or construct for hanging the plot on. That doesn’t make these films any less enjoyable; it’s just that food serves a different function.
Next up, on Tuesday, October 12, is “Joy Luck Club,” the 1993 adaptation of the Amy Tan best seller produced by Oliver Stone and directed by Wayne Wang. I enjoy both the film and the book for their authentic, sensitive, and (ultimately) sympathetic portrayal of the lives of two generations of Chinese and Chinese-American women. The older women meet regularly to play mah-jongg, eat, and talk. Through a series of flashbacks viewers learn about the past history, sometimes brutal, of these women and their subsequent relationships with their American-born daughters. Food is used effectively to illustrate, for example, the subtle competition among the older women to be the best cook and the cluelessness of a well-meaning American beau of one of the daughters, who says and does all the wrong things during a family meal.
This past August, Saveur magazine ran a feature, now on its website, titled “Great Recipes from Famous Movies.” Among the 21 they chose is the mouthwatering eggplant in garlic sauce from “Joy Luck Club.” Others range from the timpano from “Big Night” to ratatouille from, well, “Ratatouille.”
With pie as its main food vehicle, “Waitress,” a 2007 comedy-drama that was written and directed by and co-starred Adrienne Shelly, is an apt choice for the screening on November 23, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The heroine, Jenna, played by Keri Russell, is a waitress and pie baker at Joe’s Pie Diner. Jenna creates a new pie every day that reflects her emotional state and current life crises. Since she is married to one of screendom’s most unappealing characters, when she finds herself unhappily pregnant she bakes, for example, a Bad Baby Pie. When she wants to woo a suitor, she makes Magic Love Pie. But this is no “Like Water for Chocolate”: the pies are delicious no matter what her state of mind.
The plot is pretty hard to swallow, though, even if you suspend reality. But this movie is notable for its plum (pardon the puns) character roles, namely Andy Griffith as the diner’s curmudgeonly owner and Cheryl Hines as a fellow waitress. My favorite line is, “You should open a pie shop somewhere where they really need one — like Europe or New Jersey.” The film debuted at the Sundance Festival in 2007 and was well received. Tragically, Adrienne Shelly never knew this. She was murdered by a stranger a few months before its debut.
The final film in the series is an inspired, out-of-left-field choice — a 1942 screwball comedy called “Christmas in Connecticut.” It features, of all the unlikely female stars of that era, Barbara Stanwyck. I have to admit that she is not among my favorites — nor, for that matter, is her romantic co-star, Dennis Morgan — but she does a bang-up job here. Who knew!
The properly ridiculous, rollicking plot has her as a Martha Stewart-type who pens what we would now call a lifestyles column for a ladies’ magazine. Her columns describe in great detail the life she shares with her husband and baby on their farm in rural Connecticut, where she cooks up gourmet meals. Problem is, her publisher (played by Sydney Greenstreet) doesn’t know she is unmarried (and hence, no baby — this is the 1940s, after all) and lives in a tiny apartment in New York City. Let’s just say that complications of the professional and romantic variety arise during a Christmas visit. It’s great fun and in many ways a fascinating window into the mores of a bygone era. “Christmas in Connecticut” will conclude the series on Thursday, December 2.
Speaking of dark-horse food movies, one of my favorites is “Dinner Rush,” an overlooked independent film directed by Paterson’s own Bob Giraldi and starring Danny Aiello. Released late in 2001, shortly after 9/11, it was the first film I ever saw that captures the craziness and chaos of a restaurant kitchen during dinner service. (Keep in mind, this was before “Top Chef” or Gordon Ramsay graced our TV screens, or that the term “in the weeds” was in regular usage.) The action takes place over the course of one evening in an Italian restaurant in Tribeca that is patronized by mob members.
Now, I am not usually a fan of crime dramas and, as a Sicilian-American, I see nothing entertaining about the Mafia, but this witty, at times hilarious film won me over. Perhaps that’s because the action includes a restaurant critic, played devastatingly to the hilt by Sandra Bernhard. I can understand why the Princeton library didn’t choose it for this series: it is by no means family entertainment. It earns its R rating with violence, foul language, and what are euphemistically called “adult situations.” If you rent it, make sure the kids are elsewhere.
Films for Foodies, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Tuesday, October 12, 6 p.m. Screening of “The Joy Luck Club.” Mediterra offers special menu items based on the theme of the film. Register. 609-924-8822 or www.princetonlibrary.org.
Also, November 23, “Waitress”; and December 2, “Christmas in Connecticut.”