Sunday, June 1, 2014

Chef (***)

Written and Directed by Jon Favreau


Say what you will about Jon Favreau the filmmaker, he's always had a knack for finding what most audiences want. His taste is just the kind of broad competency that a major Hollywood studio can trust with something like the first two Iron Man films. Of course, he started with Swingers (for which he wrote the screenplay but didn't direct) and has always kept one hand in the filmmaking branch while making most of his money as a dependable supporting actor. Swingers is still a cult hit and speaks to a wide but specific group of young men in the 90's who felt gripped with the need for performance yet were handicapped by insecurity. In Favreau's latest film, Chef, it's easy to think of the protagonist, Carl Casper (played by Favreau), as a former member of that Swingers crew so enthusiastically mythologized, defeating the struggle of facing the future and substituting it with tackling the sludge of middle-aged schlubbery. The two films are Favreau at his seemingly most autobiographical, purely character driven pieces, but they're separated by eighteen years. We can see that Chef is a passion project after over a decade of working within the commercial moviemaking machine, rooting for the kind of 'return to form' praises that usually comes when a big time director slums it with an indie.

But it's hard to do that with Chef. His "passion project" is different from most other filmmakers', because he has the resources to call up Robert Downey Jr. and Dustin Hoffman to play ten-minute parts. And he still seems bound by the Hollywood cliche of not only giving himself an on screen love interest in the form of Scarlett Johanssen, but an ex-wife played by Sofia Vergara. Two of the most beautiful women on the planet at a time when Jon Favreau has never looked more like Louis CK. It is a foul-mouthed film which earns it's 'R' rating, but the film seems to be perpetually battling a tonal schizophrenia, with Favreau seemingly visualizing it as a gritty adult film, and the audience, not fooled for one bit, seeing it as the earnest crowd-pleaser that it is. And yet, despite the obviousness throughout this film, Favreau finds a way to make it charming, and despite it's length, he finds a way to make it breezy. Favreau's Casper is the titular chef, who runs the kitchen of a higher end restaurant in Southern California. He's far past his prime days as a top chef, but he still yearns to experiment within the artform of cooking. Unfortunately, the restaurant's owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), doesn't have the patience for Carl's more ambitious endeavors; he wants his restaurant to be pleasing, and he wants Carl to "play the hits".

Casper's need for innovation is spurred by an arrogant food blogger turned high-end critic named Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) who visits his restaurant only to tear down every course that he eats on his website, and decry that a chef as formerly talented as Carl has turned toward making such a sub-standard product. Already a troublesome workaholic, Carl's rivalry with Ramsey becomes obsessive. The little time that he does get to spend with his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), is usually spent buying new ingredients or watching movies that he can just sleep through. His ex-wife, Inez (Vergara), thinks he should open his own food truck to bring his love of food back to a more basic, pure level. But Carl ignores her, and with the egging on of his sous chef, Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and his closest cook Martin (John Leguizamo), he prepares a brand new menu meant to blow Ramsey Michel away. The entire plan is foiled when Riva learns of the plans, and after an explosive argument, Carl is fired. Adding insult to injury, Carl becomes a YouTube sensation when he comes to see Ramsey Michel that night in the restaurant anyway and screams at him.

Shamed with the power of unwanted internet celebrity, Carl becomes reclusive. He assures everyone that he's fine and that job offers are pouring. The opposite is true. In his depression, he cancels a trip to New Orleans that he promised Percy only weeks before. Inez proposes a plan: she's taking a business trip to Miami and she would like Carl to watch Percy since the usual nanny has fallen through. Carl is skeptical about taking a vacation during his life crisis, but then Inez explains that Carl can talk to her first husband Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) about borrowing a truck to start his own food truck business. Again, Carl is not a fan of the idea, but slowly running out of options and growing weary of consistently letting Percy down, he decides to join them on the trip. While eating in Little Havana, Carl for the first time realizes how he can market the food truck: with authentically made Cuban sandwiches. He becomes so enthusiastic about the idea that he totally makes over the rundown truck that Marvin offers him in a single day. His former cook Martin actually flies in from California to help out when he learns Carl's plan, and when Percy explains that he is on summer vacation, Carl agrees to let him join in on the business as well. The two men and Percy take off on a road trip, from Florida back to Southern California promoting their truck well through social media and gathering fans along the way. They stop in New Orleans and Texas, tasting the best foods that the Southern United States has to offer.

Chef is probably about too many things. There are times when it feels like its a commercial for Twitter and Vine and a few other social media sites that I hadn't even heard of (Facebook, though, feels conspicuously absent). But it is best as a road movie. Which is why I wish that it didn't spoil it's entire first hour dedicated to Carl's fuck-up-ishness, hitting the redundant beats of the well-to-do deadbeat dad who cares about no one but himself. It's a classic movie arc, and I was glad that Favreau didn't insult my intelligence by forcing Carl to be not an asshole - he learns his lessons but not because his personality changes. But the film's first half kind of slogs along while Carl makes more and more people upset, including the audience. Favreau's performance is terrific, though, funny and deprecating, and it's the saving grace in the film's more uninteresting moments. But when Carl finally gets to the food truck, it finally feels like he's getting a chance to actually say something. It's obvious that Favreau loves food and that his knowledge really fills the script. As Carl, Percy and Martin tour the country, they meet different cultures, different styles and great food. Favreau knows that you can really learn so much about America based on the food that we eat.

At its heart, Chef is a father and son movie. The only aspect of Carl Casper's life that Favreau truly hopes to redeem is his caring as a father, which makes the Hollywood redemption tale easier to swallow. It's hard not to see the allegorical aspects of Casper's hatred of food critics, but he knows enough not to take it too far. Truth be told, Chef is the rare R-rated family film. If you're so puritanical as to prohibit your child from hearing the word 'fuck', then you should probably stay away, but aside from its language, it's a film meant to warm the soul into believing that family is second only to self-fulfillment as the key to happiness. Chef's ending is so unrealistically idyllic that it nearly undermines all of the good will that had been built prior to it. Perhaps it's our history with Favreau as a filmmaker that makes us accept it even if we are rolling our eyes in the process. As a movie about food, the film truly excels, and we get more facts about flavors and ingredients then I honestly anticipated. It's a very academic thing to say but it's true: everybody loves food, and beyond us needing it to sustain life, it's probably the main thing that brings us together as people. Carl Casper is a man who has mastered food, and yet human connection is difficult for him, and that's how Favreau makes Casper's arc more complicated and fascinating to watch. Also, the food just looks delicious.

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