As Oscar weekend begins, it’s worth noting, as many bloggers like to do, how many great filmmakers have never won Academy Awards. Documentary legends Frederick Wiseman and DA Pennebaker are among them, and each released new films last year. But they were both considered “light” works for their talents. I nevertheless consider Wiseman’s “Boxing Gym” to be one of the best docs of 2010, while Pennabaker’s latest, “Kings of Pastry,” is definitely on the insubstantial side of his career. At 85 years old (you wouldn’t know it, if you’ve seen him in person recently), he’s at least still working. But I don’t think I’d recommend it to people who aren’t total foodies or Pennebaker fanatics, and even then it’s likely too unrecognizable in style to his direct-cinema classics that even devotees may be a little disappointed.
Penny seems mainly a co-director of the film (as IMDb credits him), somewhat secondary to wife Chris Hegedus, who can be heard a few times from behind the camera. The two were Oscar-nominated as a team back in 1994 for “The War Room” (screening on the Documentary Channel this weekend) and haven’t done a whole lot of major work together since — though Hegedus has done great, timely collaborations with other filmmakers, like “Startup.com” (co-directed by Jehane Noujaim) and “Al Franken: God Spoke” (co-directed by regular cinematographer Nick Doob), which I listed as one of the best of the 2000s. I guess it’s a shame she still hasn’t won an Oscar, as well.
“Kings of Pastry” follows the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition, a career-making event for French pastry chefs that is to “Top Chef: Just Desserts” what the Oscars are to the Golden Globes. The film is also akin to “Food Network Challenge” in that it’s partly sold on the fact you’ll get to see some disasters happen. But unlike that show, which is more like a NASCAR race in that you kinda want to see the cakes topple over (especially if you dislike any contestants), in the documentary you will actually be heartbroken when you see the masterful sugar sculptures collapse. Still, there is a kind of thrill to the tension of certain scenes, up until they become tragic (I love the blurb from one critic likening the film to “The Hurt Locker”).
Those moments occur in the more engaging second half of documentary. I was less interested in getting to know the three competing subjects beforehand. Though it’s necessary to have some characters, none of the three chefs caught my affection, really. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen too many culinary contests on television and expect more forced personalities and drama, but that didn’t stop my foodie fiancee from enjoying the film more than I did. And anyway I shouldn’t actually admit to disliking “Kings of Pastry” as a result of it being unlike “Top Chef,” etc. In fact, I think it’s because the film was not different enough. I wanted it to be even more observational and less concerned with directly focused individuals. I certainly did not want the interviews and contestant-voice narrations.
I also think the film lacks adequate footage of the baking and sculpting processes. There’s plenty of ribbon candy pulling, but not a whole lot of other craft. There’s also not much to the film other than a flat document of a specific competition. Other competition-based docs are best when they say something larger about, say, the pressures of being an intelligent adolescent, or inner city youth. Or, if they have a great rivalry and can form a dramatic narrative around that. ‘Kings of Pastry’ is comparably quite existential, yet also sometimes quite dull.
The film is now out on DVD and streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly. Here’s the trailer: