If you have ESPN, you can watch the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on the 4th of July. Think about that for a second. An eating contest is now broadcast annually on the nation’s premiere sports network, and has been since 2003. Professional eating may not be considered a sport by many Americans, but it’s got enough of a reputation to be elevated by cable television. And if there is any one person who is responsible for this boom in the popularity of gorging oneself for fame and fortune, it is Takeru Kobayashi. When he doubled the world record at Nathan’s back in 2001, downing 50 hot dogs in 10 minutes, he kicked off a phenomenon.
Hungry, a new film from Jeff Cerulli and Barry Rothbart, sets out to chronicle the burgeoning world of professional eating. There is now a veritable pantheon of devouring heroes, many of whom become major characters in the film. This use of character is helped by the fact that this is a competition documentary without a focus on any single competition. Like 2012’s Indie Game: The Movie, Hungry bounces back and forth across the country, keeping the tension with a well-executed sense of simultaneity.
Pennsylvania’s own Brad “The Lunatic” Sciullo becomes the central figure in Cerulli and Rothbart’s interest in the health effects of all this absurd eating, in particular because his use of the popular “water training” method is frowned upon by many doctors. The idea is to chug as much water as you can and then purge it, in order to expand your stomach. His feud with more physically responsible Canadian eater “Furious Pete” highlights this. The war started on YouTube and comes to a head at a Kobayashi-organized taco-eating contest.
The Gringo Bandito Taco Challenge turns out to be the climax of the film in a number of ways. Hungry shines most as a profile of Kobayashi himself and his battle with the International Federation of Competitive Eatng (IFOCE), an organization that seems to operate without much concern for the physical or financial welfare of its members. A dispute regarding the Japanese champion’s refusal to sign an exclusive contract led to his arrest at Nathan’s in 2010 when he crashed the stage in protest. Frankly, the organization and its owners, brothers George and Richard Shea, come off as spiteful charlatans in Hungry, a characterization that they do a pretty good job defending.
Opposite this corporate control is Kobayashi, who somehow manages to be both an underdog and a universally respected titan of the sport. So many of the other eaters seem to admire him without animosity, and the Shea Brothers may very well be the only enemies he has. His fame even takes him to an event hosted by Tony Hawk, where he gets to ask the skateboarding pioneer for some advice on striking out on his own. More than any other moment in the film, this meeting of the minds helps us understand Kobayashi’s ambitions and puts the whole world of eating in context. It’s an oasis of clarity and perspective in this otherwise quickly moving panorama, and Hungry would be a lesser film without it.
Cerulli and Rothbart are good at storytelling, great at managing time and pretty impressively intuitive when it comes to character as well. Their flare for style and finesse, on the other hand, is a bit lacking. Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” should probably be retired for good from appearing in movies, along with mostly unrelated clips from Marx Brothers movies. Hungry never quite manages to define its style, visually or otherwise. It can also be a bit difficult to tell exactly how the filmmakers want to position themselves in relation to their subject. At one point, when meeting one of the Shea Brothers, whoever is manning the camera gets a bit combative in a way that seems like a step too far. Much as it feels cliché to point out, this feels very much like a promising but rough first feature.
Hungry had its world premiere at DOC NYC last Friday night. To keep up with where the film will screen next, check its Facebook page.