City of Gold opens with a moment familiar to all writers: The author at his computer stares off into space as a blank screen glares. Words will come eventually, he knows; he just doesn’t know when. Or how coherent they’ll be.
The writer is Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold, and given that he writes roughly 150,000 words a year, no doubt his muse will strike soon. What isn’t clear, however, is why director Laura Gabbert views Gold as interesting enough to be the subject of a documentary. His accomplishments are plentiful, but that doesn’t mean he has a compelling enough personality to be worth following for 90 minutes onscreen.
The doc is a scattershot look at Gold’s life and career, assembled with no semblance of order. This is the kind of movie that usually ends up as a two-hour special on the Food Network, not the art house big screen. Gold, a food critic in Los Angeles since the early ’80s, currently writes for the Los Angeles Times. He finds joy in writing about food as a cultural reflection of the city, and is just as much at ease at a food truck as he is at a remote Korean, Ethiopian, or Southern Thai restaurant, where the fare’s so hot it’ll make smoke come out your ears.
Quite literally, he’ll eat anything. Gabbert adds to Gold’s deification by interviewing noted writers, chefs and culinary bigwigs such as chefs David Chang and Roy Choi, authors David Sax and Allen Salkin, and TV personality Andrew Zimmern. Notably, there’s nary a word from those who don’t care for Gold’s work or opinions. What’s more, there’s no recollection of any of his negative reviews; he refers to one unnamed restaurant as “disgusting” as he drives by, but that’s it. I’m certainly not calling for Gabbert to slap down a restaurant Gold has already panned, but all critics have critics, and providing a bit more balance to the narrative could’ve added needed perspective. Instead all we get is adoration for Gold, which feels much too biased and hinders the film’s credibility.
There’s also personal and tedious background info, such as Gold’s cultured upbringing, love of music, accomplishments as a cellist, time with his wife Laurie and kids, and his editor’s frustration with him for not meeting deadlines. All of this detracts from the more intriguing storyline that Gabbert touches upon but not enough: How the evolution of Los Angeles as a city can be defined by its food, and how the different sections of the city have their own unique culinary personality. More on this — how it manifested, why, and Gold’s role in defining it — would’ve kept it all more interesting.
When the last half-hour ventures away from food to focus on Gold’s love of music, you know the story is thin. City of Gold is a serviceable dish that lacks nuance. It’s edible, but you won’t really enjoy it and definitely won’t come back for more.