By now, through live broadcasts on ESPN and countless lighter-side-of-the-news stories, many people are aware of the annual 4th of July tradition on Coney Island, where thousands gather outside Nathan's Famous for a hot-dog-eating competition. They may even know about the mysterious phenomenon of Takeru Kobayashi, a 130-pound legend who recently shattered his own record by downing 53 dogs and buns in 12 minutes, far outpacing competitors three times his size. But as the documentary Crazy Legs Conti reveals in stomach-turning detail, there's a whole subcultureand sanctioning body, the International Federation Of Competitive Eatingdevoted to such amazing feats of gastronomical... er... athleticism. While the Coney Island event remains their Super Bowl, professional eaters travel to bars, restaurants, and festivals across the country to stuff their faces with matzo balls, chicken wings, sticks of butter, and other savory or marginal foodstuffs.
In their light-hearted and entertaining look at the eating circuit, directors Danielle Franco and Chris Kenneally find an affable tour guide in Jason "Crazy Legs" Conti, an eccentric New Yorker whose passion for the sport is as limitless as his appetite. More than just a casual fan, Conti studied the masters at Coney Island and Glutton Bowl closely, and applied their technique to his own nascent eating career, which unofficially commenced when he downed 34 dozen oysters in one long session at a New Orleans bar. After hooking up with the IFOCE, Conti returns to New Orleans for a 10-minute oyster-slurp against the veteran likes of Dave "Moe Ribs" Molesky and "Crawfish" Nick Stipelcovich. Though Conti dabbles in other areas, all roads lead to Coney Island, and he trains rigorously for a chance to share the stage with Eric "Badlands" Booker, "Hungry" Charlie Hardy, and, of course, the great Kobayashi.
Much like Spellbound, an Oscar-nominated documentary about young hopefuls at the National Spelling Bee, Crazy Legs Conti uncovers a small competitive subculture teeming with obsessive outcasts. If Crazy Legs had centered on half a dozen nervous pre-teens instead of a dreadlocked Corey Feldman aficionado sucking shells like a chicken bobbing for feed, perhaps it would have similarly inspired Academy voters. But within its limited scope, the film celebrates Conti's peculiar dreams and earnest intensity without dipping into condescension. To him, Kobayashi deserves all the hushed reverence attending a Michael Jordan or a Joe DiMaggio, and it's oddly inspirational to watch him chase a legend.