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The therapeutic properties of home-cooking (and some serial murder): “Kitchen Privileges”

October 2, 2008

So, recently Kassandra the Work Wife asked me to help post an ad on CraigsList “This economic downturn’s hitting me hard. I took a bath on the market.”

“You play the market?” I asked, surprised.

“What? A hot chick with a great rack who could kill you six times before you even had a chance to ogle said rack can’t play the market? That’s pretty damn sexist, you know!”

“Um…”

“For your information, Bob Guccione, I sunk a bunch of money into my cousin’s chain of adult-entertainment venues—don’t look at me like that! These are top-drawer all the way. Strictly topless and G-string, plus no lunch buffets–classy, you know?”

“I hear that’s how the Rothschilds run theirs. So what happened?”

“The stock tanked. Something about his accountant being under federal indictment. But it should rally. This whole situation will all blow over and we’ll be raking in the green again. I mean, how long can this last?”

“Ten to twenty?”

“Ha. You’re funny. I can’t believe you’re still single. Oh wait, yes I can. Anyway, I need to you to place the ad.”

“Why?” I asked “It’s posting on CraigsList, not landing the space shuttle.” 

“Because the Internet is the Devil’s candy. And I figure you’ve already been tainted by its dark essence with that blog of yours, so you’ve got nothing to lose. Now take down these particulars: I’m looking for a single, female roommate—don’t want to live with any dudes, they’re hairy and gaseous and gross—and she shouldn’t be hot. I don’t need you constantly over here macking on her.”

“I’m in another hemisphere. How would that even be possible?”

“Shut your pie-hole and listen, that’s how! Okay, renting a bedroom with access to the bathroom up to three times a day.”

“You’re limiting access to the bathroom?”

“You think I’m going to give some little bimbette the run of the place? I just bought a set of Ghurka knives and I don’t need her getting make-up and hair gel on them. She’s got the bathroom and the kitchen on special occasions—which should be submitted to me in writing at least 48 hours in advance. And maybe the front door and hallway.”

“Maybe?”

“I’m on the fence about offering front-door access. The guest room window is pretty low and there’s a bush underneath it. Hey, you think there’s a way I can get someone to pony up half the rest and not actually live here?”

“We can certainly try, can’t we?”

All of which is a long, roundabout way to lead into today’s movie Kitchen Privileges (a.k.a. Housebound), a simple ode to the horrors or joys of roommate living—depending upon which way you read the movie. Because Kitchen Privileges is a very confused film. It’s also a well-meaning one, which makes it somewhat difficult to eviscerate as fully as it probably deserves. It’d be too much like kicking a retarded puppy. Kitchen Privileges tries hard, but just can’t rise above the mediocre skills of its writer/director Mari Kornhauser.

In Kitchen Privileges, Katharina Wressnig plays Marie, an attractive LA woman who has been stricken with a severe case of agoraphobia since a brutal rape in an elevator a year earlier, and now lives as a shut-in inside her spacious house. She makes ends meet by working as a typist, transcribing notes, novels, etc. and by renting out one of bedrooms. Her latest roommate/boarder would seem to be the ideal tenant: he’s a chef, he works on an offshore rig, so he’s not around much, and he’s played by Peter Sarsgaard. He also may be a serial killer.

But he’s still a more positive presence in Marie’s life than anyone else she allows in her front door. One of the many storytelling weaknesses in Kitchen Privileges is how cartoonishly insensitive her friends and loved ones are. Her boyfriend tries to “cure” her agoraphobia by trying to force her to go to brunch with his family, and then furiously breaks up with her when she collapses from a panic attack on the front lawn. Marie’s closest friend, Ricky (Liz Stauber), is a lesbian with an unrequited crush on her and tries to use her recent dumpage as an opportunity to recruit Marie to play for her team, (“with the right sex toy, you’d never know the difference”). And Marie’s sister, Mignon (Angeline Ball), is a spoiled, irresponsible brat who at one point tells Marie “you might as well have died in that elevator for all the living you’re not doing.” How Kornhauser managed to refrain from making one of the neighbors a fugitive war-criminal or Vlad the Impaler, I don’t know. Maybe that’s in the deleted scenes.

These rotten (or, in the case of Ricky, merely self-centered) people are a quick and easy way for Kornhauser to establish Sargaard’s Tom O’Brien as Marie’s white knight. He cooks for her, helps her work through her agoraphobia, is generally sensitive and supportive, and so what if the neighbor’s cat ends up strangled? Or that someone is leaving the mutilated bodies of women on the LA freeway. I’m sure he has nothing to do with that, right?

The last third of Kitchen Privileges suddenly spirals into Suspira/Repulsion territory, as Marie becomes convinced that Tom has murdered Mignon and may or may not be cooking people. And the house becomes a living organism, with blood-vessels in the walls and, tissue membranes for doors. And everything is shot through a fisheye lens. Because apparently when you go nuts, you end up with the vision of a carp. Eventually Marie completely loses her shit and hides under the bed, where she is discovered by Ricky and Mignon sometime later. Turns out Mignon just popped off to the Caribbean with her ex. When they break into Tom’s room they find evidence that he is actually the freeway killer, but also his diary in which he has written of his love and respect for Marie. Emboldened, she walks outside into the sunlight. Fin.

Okay, if you can figure out what’s going on with this movie, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. I think Kornhauser is going for some kind of …no, no, I’m lost. Whereas Repulsion played with the delicate intersections of fantasies, fear, sex and violence, Kitchen Privileges seems to want to be an empowering tale, which makes it all the more perplexing when Marie has a complete meltdown at the end of the film. Tom is unambiguous as a romantic figure that loves Marie chastely, supports her, teaches her, and sides with her against the nasty people in her life. There would be a slender thread of logic if he turned out to be a Tyler Durden-like manifestation of Marie’s psyche fighting back and healing itself. As it plays, though, Tom is just Mr. Wonderful (who’s also a serial killer, for no plot-related reason).

As Marie, Wressnig is reminiscent of a partially-lobotomized Kate Winslet, though it’s hard to tell whether that’s the actress or the material she’s given. Even at her blankest, though, she’s still an appealing presence. Most, if not all, of the frission of the film comes from Sarsgaard. He works his natural reptilian charm, playing up the sensitive-guy role, but with eyes hooded like a crocodile sizing up Radha Mitchell’s boat. The rest of the cast is pretty much forgettable. Ann Magnuson makes a cameo to provide whatever indie-cred Ann Magnuson supposedly provides.

Kornhauser has some potentially good ideas in Kitchen Privileges, and maybe a more talented writer and director could have shaped them into something more thought-provoking or compelling. What she’s managed to make, though, is an undercooked stew of rescue/repair fantasies with a couple of appealing performances. As far as thrills, psychological depth or emotional insight, it’s pretty much a wash.

And it continues Sarsgaard’s streak of playing a romantic lead that leaves a trail of destruction in his wake. He should really do something about that.

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