Film | Food

March 9, 2005

Hungry Man

Competitive eater Crazy Legs Conti shows up at a screening of the documentary about his feats of consumption.

Carl Bialik

Crazy Legs Conti is a natural performer. He happens to be very good at the chosen mode of performance in the entertaining documentary, "Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating." We watch Conti win the world oyster-eating title—no hands, just slurping—and compete at Coney Island's prestigious hot-dog eating championship. Today he's ranked No. 13 in the world.

Competitive eating fascinates me, in part because of my own amateur gluttony. But Conti could carry a movie about a less compelling topic. I'd watch him washing windows, another occupation of his; or doing stand-up; or as a TV basketball analyst. (Perhaps some would also watch him at two of his other former jobs, as nude art-class model at the Fashion Institute Of Technology or donating sperm at $60 a pop here, but that would be an entirely different kind of movie.) He's witty, deadpan, and fun to be around.

Crazy Legs Conti
Courtesy Joel Grabois

The Onion's review compares "Crazy Legs" to "Spellbound," the spelling-bee documentary, but that's not quite right. The teenage spellers' compelling stories had to be teased out; Conti could probably hire a cameraman, then direct and narrate a good movie himself.

Many of his lines cracked up the dozens of viewers who braved ice and wind Tuesday night to catch the film in its limited engagement at the Pioneer Theater in New York's East Village, Conti's neighborhood. Conti shows the camera a photo of his bare belly after he's consumed 34 dozen oysters on Super Bowl Sunday 2002. Many people notice the discoloration, he says, but he blames that on the color photocopy. Later, his hands-free, bent-over oyster-eating style leads to some nicks, and Conti wonders if he should grow his moustache thicker, as a buffer. After downing 14 dozen oysters in 10 minutes to win the 2002 world championship, he announces that he'll be heading to a nearby bar to test the reputation of oysters for aphrodisiac effects. As the camera captures the surreal scene of Miss Teen USA contestants competing in a hot-dog contest in Seattle, Conti notes how the scene combines his dual love of flesh and, well, flesh. "There's nothing I would rather watch," he said. Near the film's conclusion, as Conti travels on the bus of champions to the crucial Coney Island contest, he cracks up his hefty fellow passengers by suggesting a competitive-eating calendar, then noting that it could feature only six people because each eater would span two months.

(The prior paragraph was constructed from my nearly illegible notes taken in the dark theater. I now understand why movie critics so often mess up details, and I have a newfound respect for their craft.)

Conti's appearance at the Pioneer after the film confirmed he's a showman. When Conti described the ascendance of Sonya Thomas, now the world's second-best eater, my friend Joel called out, "When's the wedding?" Without missing a beat, Conti replied, "The dinner date alone would be too expensive." Then he made way for his buddy Dinshaw Gobhai, who looks a little like Antonio Banderas at the Oscars. Gobhai, who made the music for the film, played a song for us, and then Conti and his posse were off to a nearby bar, along with some of the audience. There Conti told Gelf about his latest job, which might also make a great movie: He's the buyer at New York's Penthouse Executive Club, where his proximity to entertainers and kobe beef—both strictly off-limits—often makes him feel like Tantalus.

Lest I imply that eating is peripheral to Conti, know this: The man likes his food. Even his casual meals in the movie are enormous. Once he ate 68 chicken nuggets in 45 minutes, as a sort of personal challenge. Some of his gluttony may be traced to upbringing: His Dad's a great cook, and his Mom decorates her house with fake-food knick-knacks. (His parents are divorced.)

Eating has a leg up on hockey, basketball, and other pro sports, Conti says in the movie: "Every American eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. They're just not eating on the professional level." At the bar after the movie, Conti told Gelf that trading cards for top competitive eaters aren't far off—extra-large ones, of course.

Trading cards notwithstanding, I have some reservations about calling competitive eating a sport. You could make a case that extreme gluttony is an anti-sport; most top American competitors are obese, though Conti is fit and shoots hoops. But the filmmakers have made a sports movie, and not mockingly. They state on the film's website: "Competitive Eating is a sport. It has all the intense drama and emotion that are innate in all athletic competitions. The players train and compete seriously, sacrificing time, effort and money, and their desire for victory is great."

How about the health effects? Conti said that the new breed of eater looks like world No. 1 Takeru Kobayashi, who weighs 132 pounds. I'll reserve judgment until I see long-term studies of competitive eaters; but then, pro sports are dangerous, too.

In the film, Conti pumps iron; dunks hot-dog rolls in water; shops for oysters in the middle of the night at South Street Seaport so that he may slurp them in practice rounds; has a restaurant style hot-dog cooker in the apartment he shares with a bemused roommate, Jeremy George. Conti gets in "the zone" at the height of competition, blocking out fans' screams. He's shown in slow motion, as inspirational sports music plays.

Great sports films also examine athletes' dark, private moments, which enhance the public victories. "Crazy Legs" doesn't qualify because it doesn't veer much from its upbeat trajectory toward Coney Island. But eaters have their dark moments, many spent on toilets far from home. Conti told Gelf that after the 34-dozen oyster consumption three years ago that sparked his career, he paid $20 to a club's bathroom attendant and deposited about 200 of those oysters. A weekend of gorging in Alaska brought this realization: "There's nothing lonelier than sitting on a crapper at 4 a.m. as 19 reindeer sausages do the Iditarod through your intestines." Now that's the stuff of greatness.

Related on the Web

• See other reviews of "Crazy Legs Conti" at MRQE and more information about the film at IMDB.

• The International Federation of Competitive Eating's website has rankings, events and eater profiles. Here are Kobayashi's and Conti's.

• Crazy Legs wrote about his sporting life in Topic Magazine.

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Article by Carl Bialik

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