2019 Milwaukee Film Festival – Review – THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE HUNGRY
There are several sub-programs at the 2019 Milwaukee Film Festival, with the Sportsball program, focusing on sports films, being solidly popular. Especially sports that are obscure and questionable, but reveal something about its participants and fans all the same. THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE HUNGRY might push the limits on what is actually a sport to the utmost.
An ESPN 30 for 30 Film, THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE HUNGRY charts the sport of competitive eating in America centering around the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest and the rivalry of Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut. With the hucksterism of George Shea, chief promoter of Major League Eating being the third leg of the story.
Competitive eating is the most absurd of sports. Probably the only thing more absurd would be competitive breathing. That said, the documentary does make a good case that there’s actual training and technique involved and that it is, in fact, a sport. A sport with an actual rivalry. And the usual tensions, how much of the sport is the cartel that runs it and how much is it the athletes that star in it? How much freedom is allowed the stars? How are they compensated? And how much is a ginned up fiction for activities that have no larger meaning?
Director Nicole Lucas Haimes chooses to present the story largely in the words of the three protagonists, with barely a comment or question heard on camera. In many cases, that’s a smart approach to a documentary, giving a RASHOMON-like perspective on a subject. Here, it’s kind of a hindrance. Takeru Kobayashi doesn’t speak much English, so we’re left up to a translator, Joey Chestnut, frankly, doesn’t have much of an on camera personality, and that allows George Shea to fill a lot of the void with his larger than life, Vince McMahon-esque persona.
Allowing George Shea to dominate the conversation of THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE HUNGRY is a gamble that I don’t think quite works. Yeah, it provides entertainment with his big personality, but you always sense that there’s a possibility of fiction in his statements. Kobayashi was legitimately hurt by the events that led to his exile from Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest. In particular, Shea’s decision to turn Kobayashi into a foreign villain and use xenophobia as a way to spice up the rivalry between the two competitors. Perhaps Haimes was hoping that Shea would hoist himself on his own petard, but he’s too slick a customer for that. The lack of a neutral party to prod him, ask questions, and ask follow ups, is deeply missed. Clearly, Haimes has issues with the xenophobia on display, but the attempts to address them with the powers that be are frustrated at every turn. In the end, it looks like they traded access for frankness.
That said, if the documentary can’t handle the big issues it raises, it does function as a bit of light entertainment. Haimes clearly feels that competitive eating is absurd, and that absurdity is played up at all turns. The actual footage of the contests is both gross and funny in this context. And Kobayashi emerges as a real person that was emotionally wounded, albeit turned into a celebrity, by these experiences. THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE HUNGRY hits those targets and succeeds, barely, as entertainment and a character study as a result.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE HUNGRY plays twice more at the Milwaukee Film Festival; first on Wednesday, October 23rd at 6:45 pm at the Avalon Theater and finally on Saturday, October 26th at 2:30 pm at the Oriental Theater. The 2019 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from October 17, 2019 to October 31, 2019. Information and tickets can be found at Milwaukee Film’s website mkefilm.org.