Director: Neil Labute; Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Kate Hudson, and Bud Cort; Cinematography by John Seale A.S.C; Music by Michael Penn; Produced by Scott Rudin.
There are two things in the world that don’t get associated enough—ovens and pregnancy. And, this is surprising. Because when it comes to pregnancy, almost all things are associated—biology, body position, pants. And so it’s surprising that not until now has a filmmaker been daring enough to make the now-obvious leap between how often and close a pregnant woman stands to an oven, and, how hot her baby’s going to turn out, literally.
Neil Labute’s first installment in what he’s now calling the Buns Are for Hot Dogs series, Baby on Fire—which I reviewed here—featured a baby emerging from the womb in flames. That film focused on the flames’ repercussions—a burning baby means a whole new kind of crib, lots of lotion, special diapers, all kinds of headwear, early teething, muddled first words, possible socialization issues, predispositions, roaring fevers, and myriad emotional challenges to the new parents during such a charged, sleepless, and sensitive time.
Baby on Fire left many critics scratching their heads.
In the Rialto Daily, Chet Ner wrote, “In Baby on Fire, really what happened is the two parents sat around talking about what to do while the baby burned in the corner. It was like one of those fake gas fireplaces they have at the Hampton Inn—the flames are there but the so-called ‘logs’ never burn down. Why didn’t that baby burn? And why’d it get those flames in the first place?”
Fans who expect more action from Labute’s follow-up, Oven on Hot, might be disappointed.
“I thought this film might be about science or something. Instead, it was just a bunch of pregnant bakers mixing, kneading, and letting it rise,” wrote Salame Tt in the Norwalk Express. “If anything, I’d say the film was pretty lopsided. All that baking. All that bread. All those cookies, croissants, muffins. So many cupcakes. Brownies. Whatever else bakeries have. It was like Labute was trying to lull his audience into a food coma without any actual caloric intake. And then, once his audience was officially incapacitated, once he’d proven his point, once he’d proven the miracle of film, filling stomachs by way of nothing but sound and images, he took his miracle back, burning his audience’s eyes out with the ultimate montage of fireball babies flying across the screen.”
Interviewed in the trauma unit in Artesia, one viewer whose eyes really did burn out said simply, “I’m blind now. Blind, disappointed, and most of all, hungry.”
Said the mother of the blind guy in Artesia, “I tried to feed my son some soup so he’d feel better and all he could say was that it didn’t taste as good as the food he imagined eating while watching Oven on Hot. I just wish he would recognize how hard I’m trying to make him happy. I make soup, casseroles, meatloaf. And all this guy wants is blueberry muffins that don’t even exist.”
Said the CEO of the Ultimate Imagined Muffin Company of Columbus, Ohio, Merf Murr, “My heart goes out to the guy in Artesia. It’s situations like these that make me wonder whether we’d be better off manufacturing pharmaceuticals. It’s like, I’ve got a massive R&D team of recent MFA grads telling me all about the types of muffins we’d be making if multiple laws of space and time were to upend themselves. But then a real-live case of Imagined Muffin Syndrome comes along, and all I can do is throw up my hands in despair.”
Said Jan Grink, CEO of Gas Station Muffins Incorporated, “I just wish I could make it so that the top of the muffin—the very top—weren’t so moist. It’s like, there’s no water inside that plastic, but still, the tops of our muffins feel so damn wet. If I could fix this, I’d end the need for film and maybe even art itself, right on the spot. Watch out, Labute! Prepare yourself for the day when my muffins heal blindness in Artesia! The miracle’s in the mixer, Labute! No film can change that!”
Baking and the movies have a long and storied history. There’s that time in Zoolander when Owen Wilson takes the bread out of the oven. There are so many more examples where that came from. I refer you to the following Gmail conversation I had with my friend Bick:
can you name a movie
in which a character
Sent at 7:56 AM on Friday
Bick: It’s Complicated
me: thanks man
Sent at 8:03 AM on Friday
Neil Labute, however, takes things to the next level, audience comfort—and physical health, including the ability to eat and see—be damned. Such bravery in cinema marks a new frontier. In the presence of miracles, with both calories and flames exceeding the limitations of the screen and making actual physical impacts, the question of “good” or “bad” is beside the point. And to this reviewer, the undoing of the traditional metrics of quality is Labute’s greatest accomplishment.
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.