(photo credit: Courtesy)
Imagine Rain Man meets Master Chef, set in Italy, and you’ve got a good idea of what Francesco Falaschi’s As Needed is like. But this description doesn’t convey how well done or enjoyable the film is. If you’re looking for a feel-good comedy that doesn’t insult your intelligence, this is the film for you.
While it’s true that cooking and the autism spectrum (in this case, Asperger’s syndrome) are among the trendiest topics today, As Needed successfully mines both for drama and gentle comedy, with a little bit of Tuscan real-estate porn thrown in.
The plot has strong similarities to the recent Spanish film Champions, which was about a professional basketball coach who is ordered to train a team of mentally disabled players after he gets into a car accident while driving drunk.
In As Needed, Arturo (Vinicio Marchioni) is an acclaimed chef who can’t manage his anger and was sent to prison for assault. When he is released, his community service is to teach a cooking class at a home for high-functioning adults on the autism spectrum. He is upset over the assignment and is nasty and dismissive of his students, and even of Anna (Valeria Solarino), the predictably beautiful psychologist who is in charge of them. What interests Arturo is getting back into the game of working as a chef in a high-end restaurant. He turns to his father (Alessandro Haber), one of Italy’s most famous chefs, for help, but his father regards him as a disappointment and turns him away.
When his most gifted student, Guido (Luigi Fedele), a young man with Asperger’s who has an incredibly sensitive palate – he can guess all the ingredients in any dish from a single taste – gets accepted to a cooking competition, Arturo is less than thrilled. He’s more interested in an offer from a well-known restaurateur to become a chef in his new eatery, even though there are strings attached: Arturo must register the business in his name, presumably some kind of tax shelter or money-laundering scheme. But Anna orders him to supervise Guido at the competition and he agrees, reluctantly.
As Arturo picks Guido up from his grandparents – his parents are long out of the picture – and takes his student off in the grandparents’ car, the only one in which Guido will ride, he can’t begin to imagine all of Guido’s eccentricities. Helping Guido navigate the world is a bit humbling for Arturo, who is used to being the difficult one in any given situation.
This is the best part of the film, and rings true to life. I’ve spent a huge amount of time with people on the autism spectrum – my son and several others – and this is a very effective portrayal of how frustrating it can be to try to work with someone who is brilliant and rational in so many ways but extraordinarily irrational in others.
The fact that the contest is run by a shallow celebrity chef (Nicola Siri) who is Arturo’s nemesis stacks the deck somewhat, as Arturo moves from being infuriated by Guido into becoming his advocate.
The film follows the Rain Man template for showing how Guido is transformed by being taken out of his comfort zone, which leads to an ugly but sadly plausible incident, as well as some touching ones. Eventually, Guido and Arturo both change in predictable but credible ways.
In a simple story like this, the acting is what makes the difference between a routine film and a charming one, and both Marchioni and Fedele give enjoyable performances. Marchioni has a regular-guy kind of handsomeness that is extremely appealing. Fedele has the more demanding role, and he gives a compelling performance as a young man who is only beginning to understand how much his difficulties isolate him from the rest of the world.
It would be easy to be cynical about what seems to be a new mini-genre: movies about the redemptive power of working with the disabled. But as long as movies like As Needed portray those with disabilities with honesty and complexity, it’s possible to forgive some formulaic plot turns and enjoy the characters and the story.
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