MGM // 2003 // 92 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // June 4th, 2004
"I gotta stop saying 'This can't get any worse.'"
Naming a film Recipe for Disaster is practically begging for reviewers to make cracks at its expense, and although this family-friendly comedy isn't a disaster per se, it's not going to inspire any cute wordplay of the "Recipe is delicious!" ilk. Yet somehow it's impossible not to use kitchen metaphors when discussing it: I find myself wanting to talk about its lacking spice, being bland, using stale ingredients.
As with all recipes, the ingredients are probably the best place to start. First we have Patrick and Marie Korda, who are opening their very own restaurant; the film takes place on its opening night. Marie (Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria) is the high-strung chef, Patrick (John Larroquette, Night Court) the supportive husband and maitre d'. Teenage daughter Rebecca (Margo Harshman, Even Stevens) chatters to a friend on her cell phone about the party she simply has to make it to later that night, where she plans to wow a guy named Jason. Middle child Sam (Andrew James Allen), longing to follow in his mother's footsteps and become a chef, bungles the hollandaise in his effort to help. And youngest son Max (Devon Werkheiser) seems to exist in his own little world.
As our band of would-be restaurateurs arrives at Spokes, their new establishment, two glacial yuppies eye them from a rival restaurant next door, significantly named La Pretensione. These neighbors are the siblings Nikki and Blake Rathbone, and from their intermittent English accents and Blake's cravat we know at once that they mean trouble for our happy family. Adding to the pressure on the Kordas' opening night is the fact that a notoriously vicious restaurant critic, Gigi Grant (Melissa Peterman, Fargo), plans to infiltrate the fledgling eatery -- in disguise, so that the unwary owners can't go out of their way to impress her.
Just when you thought the tension had reached an unbearable point, the situation worsens. Patrick and Marie are detained by an eleventh-hour errand engineered by the ruthless Blake (Bill Dawes), and the three Korda kids are left to run the restaurant all by themselves. Great Scot! Will Sam be able to handle all the cooking, without even a sous-chef to chop cilantro? Will Rebecca be able to juggle impatient diners while avoiding being recognized by her hated blonde rival and the hunky, highlighted Jason himself? Will the Rathbones succeed in their ever more daring acts of sabotage? I dare you to guess the answers.
Recipe for Disaster has good intentions, I'm sure, in presenting us with three wholesome kids who are able to save the day, express their competence and creativity, and not only take care of themselves but make their parents proud. I certainly agree that offering good role models for kids is a worthwhile idea for a family movie, and if I sound cranky it's partly because the film undercuts the efficacy of its role models by abandoning realism and believability. From the very beginning, exaggerated sound effects clearly signal that these events aren't taking place in the real world, and the film plants itself firmly in cartoon territory as the Rathbones' sabotage becomes more and more extreme and as the kids are driven to retaliate. Our plucky heroes would be much more impressive if they operated in the sphere of reality: It's hard to admire Sam for single-handedly cooking three-course meals for a restaurant full of people when stubborn logic tells us this is just flat impossible. Not only does he manage to get everyone fed, but he and Rebecca and Max have plenty of leisure time to hot-wire La Pretensione's fuse box. I'm not certain it's a good idea to send kids the message that electrocuting conniving grown-ups is a productive pastime, especially with the bouillabaisse simmering unsupervised on the stove.
But then, it's nothing kids haven't seen before in other movies -- which brings me to my other quibble. There isn't much that's original in Recipe, except perhaps its depiction of a preteen boy with culinary ambitions as admirable instead of sissy. The dialogue is well worn, from each "This is so unfair!" to every "It's showtime!" The moment we see a blender in the kitchen, we know it will spew its contents onto someone, and our expectations are rewarded not once but twice. If I may return to the tired old storehouse of food clichés one more time, this Recipe makes use of a lot of leftovers from Home Alone, but it never captures that film's sense of joyous anarchy. The film's utter predictability works against any suspense, as do the clunky pacing and continuity flaws.
To be fair, there are some fun and unexpected moments here. When the scaredy-cat Max summons up some faux French haughtiness and routs the nasty Blake like a junior soup nazi, it's a delight to behold. As Rebecca, Margo Harshman brings some real talent and charm to the proceedings, and she's even able to make the hackneyed material work. There's a cute tip of the hat to the Police Academy movies in a scene in which the senior Kordas encounter an accident-prone traffic cop. And Warren and Larroquette, like the seasoned veterans they are, invest their few scenes with an enthusiasm worthy of a better film. Overall, in fact, the cast plugs along gamely, and Melissa Peterman as Gigi Grant deserves special consideration for energetically throwing herself into a series of exaggerated disguises. The one-dimensional antagonists, however, are mere cardboard cutouts, not developed characters. They are the Boris and Natasha of the film, and they are presented with about as much psychological realism; the overacting on the part of Michelle Brookhurst (Can't Hardly Wait) and Bill Dawes doesn't help. Director Harvey Frost (Beverly Hills, 90210) seems to temper his desire to make the film a live-action cartoon with an effort to keep it heartwarming and positive, and he doesn't manage to pull off the compromise.
So who is the ideal audience for Recipe for Disaster, since it's clearly not me? I'd say young children will enjoy the "kids rule" message and the slapstick antics, and parents should find nothing really objectionable here. If your kids are big fans of the Home Alone saga and are looking for something similar, this may just fill the bill. 'Tween girls will probably sympathize with the spunky Rebecca and her social dilemmas, and I suppose kids with longings to study cooking in Paris will finally find a hero to root for in Sam, although I don't know how prevalent culinary yearnings are among today's youth. Had the disc been garnished with some toothsome extras, I might be able to recommend it more heartily. However, besides the original trailer for the film, we are given only an assortment of trailers for other family fare, plus a tiny gallery of DVD covers. Ho hum.
Ultimately, this is bright, fluffy, mostly harmless fantasy, but it's definitely not in the top echelon of family entertainment. Parents seeking an original, emotionally compelling film that will truly be fun for the whole family should check out Disney's far superior Holes. In comparison, Recipe is no better than sloppy seconds.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated G