One of my most enduring memories of Santino Fontana as Greg on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is his funny and sad song “Settle For Me.” In it he croons, “I know I’m only second place in this game, but, like two percent milk or seitan beef, I almost taste the same.” And, even though in reality I prefer two percent milk and seitan, it does a good job of describing what I felt while watching Off the Menu, a rom-com in which he stars. It’s not the worst choice, and the idea of the movie is sweet enough (I guess) but it just wouldn’t be my first choice for a rom-com escape.
With that ringing endorsement, I’m sure you’re dying to hear more! Let’s dig in! Joel Flanagan (Fontana), is the wealthy but work averse heir to Tortilla Hut—a chain of fast food “Mexican” restaurants—who has lost his connection to…Well, to pretty much everything. He lives in a world of cold industrial grey overlaid with cool tones of blue; the only splashes of color are unattractive and neon bright. His sole focus is training for an IronMan race and consuming all of his calories through “clean” smoothies. He is a miserable excuse for a human being, which is driven home to us in every way possible. He leaves his bike in the middle of the hallway at work! He is nasty to coworkers! He’s thoughtless! Then, in an effort to boost their sagging sales, his sister, who heads the company, orders him to travel to New Mexico to research (i.e. culturally appropriate/Columbus) the local cuisine. On top of that, his girlfriend dumps him because he’s a jackass who never thinks about her (and because he needs to be single for this movie to work). The final straw is when he throws away her coffee maker because coffee is unhealthy (fuck off) and because he thinks it clashes with the kitchen (I hate him).
He’s miserable, wallowing in self-pity, annoyed that he has to do actual work, and more annoyed that he might have to eat actual cheese, but he dutifully heads off into the Southwest. In an effort to expend as little energy as possible, he trails after a food tour bus that leads him to the small town of Villanueva where, on the very thinnest of pretenses, he gets stuck for an indefinite amount of time. (He gets pulled over for speeding and it turns out his license has been suspended because his conniving assistant hadn’t gotten it renewed. What?!? I don’t think that’s how any of that works.) Wait, did I mention he’s a lawyer? No, of course I didn’t, and it’s dropped into the movie with just as much non-sequitorness.
It just so happens that the town of Villanueva is home to a tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurant run by Javiera Torres (Dania Ramirez), who just so happens to be a beautiful and extremely talented chef who left the big city to return to her roots and get far away from her no-good ex-husband. What are the chances?!? So good. The chances are so good. In fact, they are what we call a sure thing. (As is Joel and Javiera ending up in the sack together. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) The color palette in Javiera’s world is all warm, deep colors highlighted by sunlight streaming in through large windows in the house where she lives with her young daughter Sophia (Mackenzie Moss). With whom, I might add, both Joel and Javiera have better chemistry than they do with each other.
Javiera is also the keeper of the Torres family’s secret patch of green chile plants, which we are told again and again are the key to all her cooking. Much cumbersome drama with a tourism tie-in! I get the importance of the green chile, the importance of heritage, and the importance of regional cuisine. In fact, I like all that in theory, but in the reality of this movie it is like being bludgeoned repeatedly by a large heavy replica of a green chile. There is even an original song (written and performed by Fontana and his wife) about… Can you guess? You can!
Is that forced romance you smell cooking? It is indeed! On his first day in town, Joel runs into Javiera’s mother (Maria Conchita Alonso), who tells him he looks sad, which is apparently, to her, a qualifying quality for being a decent man. (It’s not. Don’t fall for that trick!) He doesn’t look sad to me, he just looks like a pouty, overprivileged jerk whose fancy car just got taken away and will now be forced to eat food that he has to chew. No matter, Javiera’s mother immediately adores Joel and is OBSESSED with him possibly being “the one” for Javiera—a phrase that I hate with the heat of all the Scoville units—and with getting Javiera to trade her hipster twit of a boyfriend (who is clearly trying to take advantage of her and has no redeeming qualities) for Joel (who also appears to have no redeeming qualities and is slightly more nuanced in the ways in which he’s trying to take advantage of her). Javiera, by the way, is a total catch, and her choices are the putz behind door number one or the schmuck behind door number two? A real win-win situation! I feel like we could do better than that for her. But the patriarchy! (Imagine me singing that while twirling around with my arms spread wide in a Sound of Music style.)
Look, to be honest, if it weren’t my higher calling to give opinions that no one asked for about rom-coms that no one asked me to watch, I probably wouldn’t have finished this movie. Again, it’s not terrible, it’s just pretty meh. I think some people will complain that this movie is predictable. You know what else is predictable? People whining that romantic comedies are predictable. Of course you know what’s going to happen! That’s the formula, people. That’s how it works. Sure, there’s room in the formula for innovation. And no, this movie does not do too much to innovate. Is there an obligatory scene with someone getting drunk and waking up next to farm animals? Absolutely. Is there an obligatory scene where the leads go from arguing to making out? Yessiree. Is there plenty more to complain about? Hell yes! (And, fear not, complain I will.) But, for the love of all the predictable eleventh-hour reunions and final kisses in all the world, please don’t come at me with complaints about predictability.
As a brief interlude from my kvetching, let’s go ahead and talk about some of the positive aspects of this movie (she says, as if that’s so very magnanimous of her). Much of it was filmed on location in Taos, New Mexico, and the scenery is gorgeous. The largely female cast is also predominantly Latinx. A lot of Spanish is spoken in the movie. It’s framed as an ode to New Mexican cuisine and culture. It was written by a woman. Part of Joel’s journey to becoming a nicer person is learning to reconnect with homemade food thoughtfully made with fresh ingredients, which I can get behind.
There is a scene toward the end where Javiera gives an impassioned speech about local food versus factory food, and that was pretty damn sexy. Way sexier than the actual scenes that were supposed to be all sensual, of which there were many. Slo-mo action of cheese falling onto a dish. Loving placement of an egg. Often in these parts Javiera has these two tendrils of hair hanging down by her face. Alluring? I guess, but it mostly made me worry how much hair she was serving up to her customers. And there was this scene when she and Joel are making food together as foreplay (a word that I momentarily forgot and was going to write as “preamble to sex”), and Javiera lays a clean towel on the floor, covers it with cornflakes, lays another clean towel over that, kicks off her shoes and kind of stomp dances on it, and then they make out? I wrote that as a question because it’s just so confusing. Obviously no judgement at all if that does it for you, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how much stuff was going to end up ground into the cornflakes that eventually end up becoming part of the food that they spoon into each other’s mouths. Also, just, What?!? (When I described this to my husband, he couldn’t even process that information, so skipped right to asking about how they used the cornflakes in the dish.) I guess we’re done with the portion of the review where I don’t complain.
Anyway, in the end Joel redeems himself (I guess) and is heroic and he does sort of end up doing an IronMan of sorts, but for selfless reasons—even if they were so amazingly contrived that I still haven’t found one of my eyeballs because I rolled it so hard. Realism aside, I was annoyed that he was the rescuing hero because Javiera and her food are what saved his stupid ass from a corporate life that was sucking the soul out of him one protein-packed smoothie at a time. But, you know the patriarchy is always gonna patriarch.
I’ve seen other people use words like sensual to describe this movie, so I’m pretty sure some of you are going to be baffled that my responses range from “meh” to “What the fuck?” Which I respect. I mean, I am a person who just tried to make “preamble to sex” a phrase, so maybe I’m not the best judge of sensual right now. I don’t know—obviously you should watch what you want, but I think when it comes to rom-coms you can do better than settling for this one.