Chef Directed by: Jon Favreau Cast: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Scarlett Johansson, Emjay Anthony, Robert Downey Jr., Bobby Cannavale Running Time: 1 hr 55 mins Rating: R Release Date: May 16, 2014
PLOT: A struggling chef (Favreau) reinvents himself when he pioneers a food truck and makes Cuban sandwiches with his son (Anthony) and friend (Leguizamo).
WHO'S IT FOR? Those curious about a different kind of pacing, especially from a sunny R-rated movie revolving around food.
By the time of his 2011 box office blitzkrieg otherwise known as Cowboys & Aliens, the product that indie director-turned-Hollywood habitue Jon Favreau had been hocking as a "popcorn salesman" had gone stale (to use a showbiz term from Nicholas Ray's In A Lonely Place). Packing up his CGI tools and baring himself as vulnerable to criticism for making some bad movies, Favreau has now written, directed, and acted in a journey back to artistry.
With his latest film Chef, a very different direction from his recent action fantasies, Favreau seeks to provide the same audiences another stimulation - that of delicious food, and the rare sense of no-stakes relaxation at the multiplex. But, Chef does find complications as a vanity vehicle; instead of making a good movie, he specifically wanted to make something of his own, a journey with a character that doesn't fully earn our sympathy as a reinvented underdog.
Perhaps one should be lighter with the usage of the word "blitzkrieg" when talking about said unsuccessful genre Frankenstein, as its failure has created a very naked response from Favreau, re: the very existence of Chef. Instead of playing a director who becomes associated with formulaic crowd-pleasing films, Favreau plays a tatted-up cook that once ascended with integrity, but then lost his way in his food artistry because every night he dishes "the hits." Though this satiates his restaurant's manager (Dustin Hoffman in a bizarre cameo) it has effects on his self-esteem, especially when he gets a harsh (and unprofessionally personal) review from a famous food critic (played by Oliver Platt) who rejects his same old things.
Carl responds to the critic via his newly-created Twitter account, but his misunderstanding of a private message vs. a public post creates a social media spectacle, as the critic and artiste fight back and forth. When he embarrasses himself at a second attempt to prove the critic of his true cooking potential, Carl takes a trip with his son and wife to Florida, which begins a point of reinvention. He gets a beaten down food truck, and with the help of his son and friend (played by John Leguizamo), they operate a running Cuban sandwich machine that drives across the country bringing Favreau's Jimmy Buffet-ing to various locations.
The most definitive feature of Favreau's tale of reinvention is indeed his distaste for conflict. This is a road movie that fully coasts; it starts up slow, and then when it reaches its second half, achieves full cruise control. It averts problems in a way that is different from any type of popular movie, not just his previous blockbusters. He has no interest in the type of dramatic folly that could still have such a place in this story. There's no big competition at the end, or even corporation trying to stop him. There isn't even a question of the food truck being put in danger, in regards to its cross-country expedition, or the amount of usable food ready to be cooked. Based around Favreau, it's all about him improving - being a better father, a better food artist, and a better husband. As a storyteller, he resolves any type of mini conflicts with a strikingly natural touch.
Life may be like Chef more than other films, but this lack of immediacy provides a polarizing pacing. Is this storytelling ease refreshing, in that it doesn't even have audiences worrying about the stress of what could be an easily contrived arc? Or is the film so chill bro that it leaves viewers slumped in their chairs, with nothing to do but watch food be made, while a hurt filmmaker tries to reinvent himself?
The complete transparency of Favreau within Chef, whether in front of or behind the camera, provides him ironically with the loudness that he intentionally tried to eschew; he is his own Iron Man-esque aesthetic assault, or excerpts of dialogue from the cacophonous film The Break-Up. No, that is not a reference to his physical appearance (as he is clear to mention in Chef), but the direct monologue he has with his audience for the film's duration. He expresses these things very clearly; that he (and others) worked hard, that it is difficult to take criticism of a movie even you couldn't save ("You sh*t on my sh*t!" he exclaims at Platt's critic), but ultimately about what keeps bringing him back to the idea of filmmaking, of which he is set to make a "Magic Kingdom" film in the near future ("I get to touch people's lives with what I do.")
But taking the conceit of making a vanity project, Favreau is sure to assert his worth, as a hip, attractive dude of the alternative variety. A tiny arc of the film is related to his embrace of social media (of which Favreau the director animates with quirky visuals throughout). As the food truck grows, it gains a following that comes with the plot territory, but it turns his group into a revelation, creating an alternative sensation albeit classic food, like an indie sensation. In an obvious move this side of John Turturro's creepy Fading Gigolo, Favreau also presents himself as sexually enticing to Sofia Vergara (his separated wife) and a restaurant worker (who happens to be played by Scarlett Johnasson).
In the age of digital filmmaking, is there a way to try to make food look good, and fail? It doesn't seem possible, unless the lights aren't on. Even the food that is originally non-appetizing to one's taste buds can be converted to scrumptiousness with the detail of a close-up that shows texture. For sure, a grilled cheese has never looked as good as it does in Chef, one that is worthy of an extra closing credits scene where chef Roy Choi talks about the focus required in making such a perfect grilled cheese.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10