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42 GRAMS (2018) review

January 27, 2018

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produced by: Jack C. Newell
directed by: Jack C. Newell
rated: not rated
runtime: 82 min.
U.S. release date: October 8, 2017 (San Diego International Film Festival), January 27, 2018, January 28, 2018, January 31, 2018 & February 2, 2018 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL) & February 1, 2018 (Netflix) 

 

The very end of “42 Grams” left me floored, eliciting a “Whoa” and a “What?” response. It also left me quite curious and raised some questions. All of my questions were for director Jack C. Newell. He’s the reason why I watched this documentary revolving around Chicago chef, Jake Bickelhaupt, who briefly ran a restaurant with his wife in the Uptown neighborhood of a city known for its food. I’m not a foodie and I’m not really hip to the local restaurant scene here in Chicago, but having seen Newell’s previous film, “Open Tables”, and enjoyed his work as an actor there and in the upcoming “Mercury in Retrograde”, I was curious about this film. As it turns out, this isn’t just another documentary about a particular type of cooking or food, but rather a look at how the stressors of ambition, obsession and ego, can overwhelm one’s dream.

Bickelhaupt is a Wisconsin native who had trained under noted Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, as well as some of the city’s very best restaurants, like Schwa and Alinea. About five years ago, he decided to break free from what he and his wife, Alexa Welsh, were doing, which was essentially running an underground (illegal) restaurant called Sous Rising out of their Uptown apartment. The goal was to present custom flavors in a refined BYOB presentation to a small group of dining room-size patrons. That lasted for about a year or so. When the fried chicken joint below them closed, Bickelhaupt and Welsh got the idea to do what they were doing upstairs legitimately (legally) down there and “42 Grams” essentially follows that process.

 

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From start to finish, the camera is intimate (at times claustrophobic but never intrusive) and, for better or worse, we are witness to all of it.  His goal is to have this new restaurant – named after the supposed fact that the human soul weighs 21 grams and that the two souls in this case are Jake and Alexa’s (you may remember this from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “21 Grams”) – receive a highly-regarding two-star rating from Michelin, something that would be a dream come true for him. There’s the typical planning of a restaurant, such as developing a menu and a look for the space, yet along the way we’re also bluntly exposed to the Jake’s impatience and exasperation, as he yells at a revolving door of underlings, stressed out by self-induced pressure with his wife often receiving the brunt of it all. You can’t take your eyes off of Bickelhaupt’s obsession, but it becomes increasingly difficult to see how he treats others in pursuit of his artistic vision, but then again, he’s not unlike many other obsessive creative types.

While watching “42 Grams”, I was reminded how documentaries can tell us the most raw and truthful stories simply by letting the camera do its thing. Sure, certain documentaries  have an angle or agenda, but the ones that resonate the most are those that simply trust viewers to find their own way and that’s what Newell does here. Newell was aware there’s a story here and my bet is he just didn’t know what kind of story would play out. That’s how artistic process is, which is what’s captured here. The film is a sensory extravaganza, we see exquisite sharply focused time-lapse look at food creations and we even hear an off-camera Newell ask Bickelhaupt some questions. In doing so, the observant Newell winds up capturing some candid moments, ranging from volatile rants to emotional releases.

 

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The most memorable and potent emotional release can be seen when Bickelhaupt and Welsh await a call from Michelin at their apartment. The build-up to the call is filled with anticipation and excitement, but it’s the reaction to the Michelin official awarding 42 Grams a two-star rating. He’s elated, thrilled and emotional, as we see him cover his face with his hands and cry tears of joy. We see him deflate and say, “I’m just happy someone recognized what I thought I am. So it does validate,” right next to his wife, Alexa, who’s been there for him and with him during these long and arduous process the entire time.   There’s no embrace or hug between the two. Alexa holds up two glasses of champagne, telling him, “Love you, congratulations” and yet Bickelhaupt is still absorbed in what he considers his victory.

Any astute viewer can see how this is something of a hollow victory. It might not dawn on Bickelhaupt right at that moment, but certainly the cost of his pursuit will soon be felt in their relationship. The whole time I couldn’t help but think of what was going through Newell’s mind while capturing this. As a director, it’s amazing to capture such a revealing and euphoric moment for the subject, but one would imagine it being kind of uncomfortable at the same time. Pair this scene with another where Newell captures Alexa, as she shares how they have no life outside of the restaurant and how three of their four parents have died during this time, and you can sense the sacrifice and hardship endured. I suppose that can take place in the pursuit of just about anything, but it does speak to the need for balance and community in one’s life. Even if you think you can or should go at it alone, that doesn’t mean you should.

I can sit here and be critical of this crazy and cocky chef, considering his obsessive and self-absorbed behavior is often reprehensible and off-putting. But the more I got into this documentary (and it’s easy to do), the more I realized how Jake Bickelhaupt is like all of us. We’re all specialists at something, or at least we think we are. “42 Grams” is an ode to the artistic pursuit of following one’s dreams and an uncompromising observation of creativity and obsession, immortalizing a process that will never have an expiration date.

 

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RATING: ***

 

NOTE: Director Jack C. Newell is scheduled to appear for audience discussion at all screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center, along with documentary subject Alexa Welsh.

​On Sunday, January 28, Trevor Albert will moderate the discussion. Trevor Albert is the producer of the documentary “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” and “Groundhog Day” and is the Chair of the Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City.

 

 

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