I suppose it sounds like an insult to call Lionsgate Premiere's latest release Cook Off! dumb as fu**.
Strangely enough, it's not an insult. In fact, it's a compliment.
Cook Off! is practically the definition of a film that has been stuck in distribution purgatory, a film shot in 2007 that is just now seeing the light of day thanks to Lionsgate Premiere with the film hitting limited nationwide release and On Demand on November 17th.
Cook Off! reminds me of those deliciously awesome Saturday mornings in the late 80's when I would find myself traveling down to the local multi-plex to check out the latest low-budget, slightly naughty and so bad it's good comedy. I loved those films and, despite a fair amount of flaws, I found myself feeling weirdly affectionate toward Cook Off!, a mockumentary set in the world of competitive baking based upon Cathryn Michon's novel "The Grrl Genius Guide to Life." Michon stars in, co-directs, and co-writes Cook Off!, a film that manages to rather delightful ensemble cast of ultra-familiar faces, "Hey, I know that guy!" faces, and even a few faces who seem to have starred in just about every almost bad comedy ever made.
I'm looking at you, Diedrich Bader.
Cook Off! centers around the annual Van Rookle Farms cooking competition, a national competition that invites chefs from around the nation to compete for its $1 million prize and all the prestige that goes with winning the competition. Heck, this year they've even got their first black contestant ever AND their first ever male!
Michon is front-and-center as Minnesotan Sharon, a Type A personality whose day job is selling Lutheran Sex Toys despite the fact that as a currently single gal she's not allowed to use them. Now then, she is dating Lars (Gary Anthony Williams), an overly friendly black man who's described by Sharon as the "most Swedish Guy in Minnesota" and who seems more than willing to not engage in carnal pleasures before their marriage.
If you haven't figured out his secret, you've likely never watched a movie.
Sharon's sister Pauline (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a nursing home dietician who specializes soft liquid diets, has also made the competition in the decidedly unglamorous vegetable category, while other participants include the electric scooter using Ladybug (Niecy Nash), the very pregnant Patty (Romy Rosemount), and Cassandra (Jennifer Elise Cox), the distracted and fragile daughter of former winner Victoria (Cristine Rose). In an appearance from her pre-fame days, Melissa McCarthy has what amounts to as an extended cameo as Amber, a late arrival who shows up alongside her hubby (real life hubby Ben Falcone) and whose attempts at gaining her composure fail hilariously in a shtick familiar to most of McCarthy's fans.
There are other unexpected familiar faces along the way ranging from Master of Ceremonies Gavin MacLeod, as himself, to Nosh Network announcer Christine (Markie Post) to Louie Anderson as the Mayor and the list goes on and on and pretty much ends with the always fun Diedrich Bader, whose appearance as the partner to a three-time entrant and immensely sore loser justifiably feels suspect from minute one.
If you don't have a tolerance for dumb as fu** comedy, then Cook Off! isn't for you. Cook Off! is an immensely silly yet oddly affectionate concoction with scenes that work, scenes that don't work, scenes that have been re-edited hoping to work (think McCarthy!), and a surprisingly feel good story about the immensely talented and beautifully utilized Wendi McLendon-Covey whose performance here, I dare say, even brought a little bit of a wet spot to my eyes as she broke out of her sister's shadow and even struck a little romance with the competition's mascot, Muffin Man (Steve Little).
The ensemble cast here is strong across the board, though only McLendon-Covey really stretches outside of her familiar comedic territory. While she's on screen, McCarthy likely gets the most laughs even if it's the frantic, neurotic McCarthy that we've been seeing for a few years now. Michon's a hoot, Niecy Nash plays it all up quite nicely, and both Diedrich Bader and Gary Anthony Williams shine even when their scenes don't completely gel.
To be sure, plenty of folks won't particularly care for Cook Off!, though the film's improvisational spirit and playfulness feels like a cousin to the Guest mockumentaries. The film goes on a good ten minutes or so too long, an obvious ending ditched in favor of a chaotic exercise in comedic twisting that never quite convinces.
That said, Cook Off! made me laugh quite a bit more than you might expect from a 10-year-old film and, maybe more than anything, made me fall in love with Wendi McLendon-Covey all over again. Silly and sweet, funny and just plain dumb, Cook Off! opens in Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, Dallas-Fort Worth, Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne, Phoenix, and Philly in addition to the usual On Demand outlets.
Give it a chance. Cook Off! may not be the best comedy you see this year, but its silly and gentle spirit will make you laugh like those films used to make me laugh all those years ago as I sat in the back of a run-down mall theater giggling my way through the closing credits and being grateful for a couple hours of just chilling out and having a good time.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic