Documentary Review: Say ‘allo to my gorging lil’friends — “ScarfFace”

You glance at the poster or the DVD cover for “ScarfFace” and you figure “Ah, a new edition to the DePalma/Pacino Cuban gangster epic” is out.

“Say ‘allo to my leetle friend” and all that.

And then you see the extra “f” in the title and figure out it’s a documentary about “competitive eating,” and chuckle. “Clever…cute.”

But the deeper you get into this film about this distinctly American “sport,” built around the annual, over-hyped and oft-televised World Championship hot-dog eating contest staged every July 4 at Nathan’s on Coney Island, the more the film resembles the making-of-a-mobster tale from the ’80s.

PETA protests and deaths among the competitors, allegations of xenophobia and corruption and racketeering and “fixed” results sour what little wry amusement there is for what its most cynical competitor aptly describes as “”wasting food in onstage display of gluttony” that is both gross and quintessentially American.

Joseph Ruze and Sean Slater’s documentary starts out like many a puff-piece TV feature on the comical metaphor for Wasteful America, Gorging America and Why America is So Fat. A little Coney Island stunt, first staged in 1916, grows into something the content-starved “All ‘Sports’ network, ESPN, turns into a big footnote in the annual “news” that spins around the July 4 holiday.

Joey Chestnut beats Takeru Kobayashi in Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest! USA! USA!”

George Shea is a PR guy who got involved with promoting the event, took on MC duties and is laugh-out-loud GREAT at it. He had to be the one to give nicknames to some of the eaters — Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, Matthew “The Megatoad” Stonie, Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas.

“The Four Horsemen of the Esophagus are here today,” he intones, working up the crowd, competing for “The Most Important Trophy in the HISTORY OF THE WORLD!”

That there’s some hype, and the straw-boater topped Shea’s breathless patter, reciting-from-memory the titles in eating pierogis, chicken wings, brats and tacos each contestant can claim, is an amusing marvel.

And then “the hot-dog eating contest” film evolves into an expose of “Major League Eating” and hints of greed and megalomania, showing Shea as a would-be Vince McMahon/France family NASCAR cover-ups and NFL colluding hype-master who has taken it over.

It’s enough to make you lose your appetite…for hot dogs and for good-natured carny barker ballyhoo.

The portraits of the competitors are superficial in the extreme. Even the obnoxious self-promoter Juan “More Bite” (Get it?) who is always “available” to talk to doesn’t give us much idea of what motivates these folks — who might pick up an extra $75,000 a year at the very top level — or what their lives are like.

But taking the film far and wide, to Vegas and eating contests staged in restaurants and fairs, gives us an idea of the small-time nature of it, and just how low the stakes actually are that these people and the controlling (no media access except, by contract, through Shea) tyrant who runs it are fighting over.

What feels, at the outset, like a good-natured “King of Kong” (competitive arcade game players) riff on an arcane corner of Americana starts to smell like every dirty thing you’ve ever heard or suspected of the WWE, NASCAR and the NFL.

When we learn, early on, that the skinny Japanese fellow, Takeru Kobayashi, who helped make this event national news in the early 2000s, was banned from competing for refusing to sign on with the greedy control-freak publicist and hype man who took over “competitive eating,” the entire enterprise starts to smell.

And just when you marvel that of all the time we spend watching people shove hot dogs with buns down their throats “nobody chokes to death,” the deaths start to turn up.

They’re not choking, but this practice is as lethal as you’d expect, shortening and ending lives.

As an expose, “ScarfFace” makes a great surface gloss on this “sport,” just deep enough to suggest how unsavory it all is, perhaps not deep enough to lead to legal action against the filmmakers. The “scandals” surrounding it are usually limited to the deaths.

And every “King of Kong” or WWE needs its villain. Shea may even relish (ahem) that label.

The staged footage of Mexican “fans” of the sport watching it on TV and the cynical, droll commentary of semi “above it all” eater and self-described lab trial test subject Phil “The Abyss” Fuden may put this vulgar display of Ugly Americanism in perspective. Or it could be the filmmakers taking their own shot at hyping their product into something it never quite is — an authoritative take-down of a July 4 “tradition.”

Rating: unrated, profanity

Cast: Joey Chestnut, George Shea, Miki Sudo, Molly Schuyler, Takeru Kobayashi, Juan “More Bite” Rodriguez, Phil “The Abyss” Fuden, Matt Stonie

Credits: Directed by Joseph Ruze and Sean Slater, scripted by Sean Slater. An IndiePix release.

Running time: 1:17

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.