There’s a point in City of Gold where David Chang, chef and proprietor of Momofuku, laments that Los Angeles Times food critic and documentary subject Jonathan Gold was not the main food critic in New York City. But transplanting Gold, a native Angeleno, to the Big Apple would dilute his talent. Being a food critic is akin to being a diplomatic ambassador. To be a great food critic, one has to have a deep, intimate knowledge of where they work. Gold certainly meets that requirement in Los Angeles.
City of Gold functions as a culinary tour of Los Angeles led by Gold just as much as it is a portrait of Gold himself. One supposes he likes it that way; his passion for the city and its food is obvious throughout the film’s 90-minute run time. Viewers are literally whisked around Los Angeles by Gold, heading from Hollywood to Little Ethiopia to the San Gabriel Valley.
Every moment along both the film’s journey and Gold’s journey from proofreader to Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic is connected to a place. Gold credits much of his development to a one-year culinary odyssey along Pico Boulevard, the 15.5 mile stretch that he calls “Los Angeles’s back porch”; he meets with his brother Mark in Tehrangles and samples a seafood taco in Boyle Heights. This movement keeps both the film and its subject interesting. Viewers see the impact that Gold has had on the city of Los Angeles and vice-versa.
But there is something missing from this film: its technical aspects are sub-par. The moment-to-moment editing in particular is lacking. It frequently leads the audience in one direction only to turn and head in another. For a film so intimately tied to the movement of its subject (both human and municipal), it is a frustration.
The cinematography is also lackluster. Outside of some wide shots of Los Angeles, the film’s shots and shot selection are quite cramped. The film spends a good chunk of its time in Gold’s truck. While in the truck, the film restricts itself to various shots of Gold’s face (and not even full view!). It makes sense when Gold is offering his opinion on restaurants, but when he’s not, views of the city he is traversing would’ve been preferable.
For journalists, journalism students or those simply interested in cultural criticism, this film is a fascinating watch. It takes a deep dive into the amount of work that goes into a single restaurant review and what it takes to get to Gold’s position. For those looking for a good movie, though, the craft never catches up to its subjects.