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You make me sick! Why films fondness for food poisoning takes the biscuit


From blockbusters such as Oceans 8 to serious cinema such as Phantom Thread, Hollywood has a long tradition of treating the spiking of victuals as fair game

So, you want to steal a priceless diamond necklace from a movie star at the Met Ball? Easy just spike her soup with emetic. Haha! She will be so busy vomiting into the toilet that she wont notice when someone unhooks the bling from her neck!

Oceans 8 skips through this part of the heist as though it were some sort of admirably fleet-fingered legerdemain, so let me run it by you again. Daphne Kluger (played by Anne Hathaway) admits she has been starving herself for days so she can look suitably skinny on the red carpet. She is then, effectively, put at serious risk of dehydration, internal bleeding or an allergic reaction to one of the drugs ingredients. And SPOILER! she forgives them.

Hollywood comedies have a long and dishonourable tradition of treating what is effectively poisoning as a lark. Yet, increasingly, I find myself worrying about the victims. In Wedding Crashers (2005), John (Owen Wilson) sneaks eyedrops into the wine of his romantic rival (Bradley Cooper), forcing him to retreat from the dinner table with intestinal turbulence, thus leaving the field clear for our man to score with the lovely Claire (Rachel McAdams). Eyedrops contain tetrahydrozoline, ingestion of which can lead to hypotension, apnea and coma. But Johns romantic rival is an obnoxious fopdoodle, so its just a bit of fratboy fun, right?

Besides, its written that yobs, slobs and snobs are fair game in knockabout comedies. Who cares if Stifler slips a laxative into Finchs mochaccino in American Pie (1999), or that the consequent public humiliation could leave him psychologically scarred for life? Or if Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass 2 (2013) prods the mean girls with a sick stick, which makes them simultaneously vomit and defecate right in front of everyone in the school canteen? No, not a disproportionately mean-spirited response at all. Or if Alan spikes the Jgermeister with a date-rape drug in The Hangover (2009), leaving him and his buds with no memory of the stag party or of where they left the groom? (Trapped on the hotel roof in danger of dehydration and heatstroke, as it happens.)

The arthouse sector reminds us that spiking someones food or drink can actually be a matter of life and death … Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. Photograph: Allstar/Focus Features

In Mrs Doubtfire (1993), the title character, played by Robin Williams, almost kills his ex-wifes new beau (Pierce Brosnan) by sneaking into a restaurant kitchen to sprinkle cayenne pepper liberally on the poor guys jambalaya after having been warned that he was allergic to it. Even Mr Bean is at it in Bean (1997), slipping a laxative into a museum guards coffee so he can replace the damaged portrait of Whistlers Mother with a pristine reproduction.

As far as I can remember, none of these poisoners ends up in jail, and the victims apparently sustain no lasting damage. True, these are all comedies, in which extreme physical jeopardy comes with the territory. Food poisoning, in particular, is a laugh riot you just need to think of the puke-and-poopathon in Bridesmaids (2011). Its all fun and games, right up to the point where you catch E coli or someone slips polonium-210 into your tea.

But if Mickey Finningsans consequence is a recurring motif in comedy, serious arthouse dramas are no less unrealistic in their treatment of poisoning. Take the deathcap mini-trend that surfaced last year: in Lady Macbeth (2016), The Beguiled (2017) and Phantom Thread (2017), seemingly defenceless women wield the only power available to them by felling men with toxic fungi.

In real life, ingestion of poisonous mushrooms can cause extended gastrointestinal purging, from both ends, prior to liver failure. But these films are tasteful period dramas; whereas in a comedy the result would be explicit evacuation, here its pared down to a bit of wheezing, followed by the thud of a collapsing body. At least in the slightly less serious Phantom Thread, in which most of the unpleasantness occurs behind bathroom doors, Daniel Day-Lewis manages to convey the sweaty feverishness of food poisoning so convincingly that its liable to give anyone who has suffered it an uneasy flashback or two.

So, if comedy poisoning wins hands down over elegant period drama in terms of the realistic portrayal of vomiting and defecation, it still downplays the consequences. The arthouse sector, for all its tasteful discretion, reminds us that spiking someones food or drink can be a matter of life and death, rather than just a mischievous hazing ritual with no serious harm done. Maybe its time for a bit of genre crossover. I would have liked to see Sofia Coppola apply her Vogue aesthetic to some of the baser bodily functions at the end of The Beguiled. And that Oceans 8 heist might have been a sight more memorable if Daphne had ended up tethered to a drip-feed in intensive care.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us


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