[Review] - Chef

Courtesy of Aldamisa Entertainment
Chef is a cruel sort of film. not in it's tone, or in it's execution. It's actually an entirely agreeable film; a very engaging film, filled with characters that you actually give a damn about. What makes it cruel and infuriating is that it is filled with food. It is food porn of the highest quality. It outmatches Hannibal and the Food Network's prime time lineup. Do not see this film on an empty stomach. Hell, I saw this film minutes after having gorged myself on a beef roast, and still walked away craving a Cuban sandwich and a slice of the Texas slow roast, seen above.

Jon Favreau seems to  have found himself again with this film, after Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, two films which while technically competent, lacked any sort of passion behind the camera. This film is built on passion. The entire thesis of the film is passion. If the writing and directing and starring and releasing this film was a way for Favreau to find the spark in the film making process again, then he succeeded. While it is short on story, it isn't a story piece. It's a character piece. It's a little bit road movie, a little bit hero's journey. It's about redemption and rediscovery, and about learning how not to be a jack-ass.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that gladly would have eaten that burnt sandwich.

Until Favreau speaks to the exact events that influenced the writing of Chef, we can only guess what it was that put him on this road. But the film is not that subtle about where it is coming from, so we can make a few reasonable assumptions. Favreau uses the script, and the character he plays, as a mouth piece for his own discontent. Occasionally, the veil between the film and reality disappears completely, and the movie functions as an exposed nerve for a time, a chance for Favreau to unleash his pain and fury on us. The most obvious of these scenes is when he confronts the reviewer, and in a blind, sorrow-filled pitch-fit, he unloads on him about his arrogance and comfortable safety hiding behind a keyboard. It is just one of the truly genuine moments in the film. There is a brutal, occasionally awkward honesty to Chef, that makes it more than the trapping of the plot would have it be.

At it's most simple, Chef is Favreau's take on the modern culture of producing a product. Metaphysically, it is about making movies. Metaphorically, it is about making food. Both, once you add any measure of celebrity and former success to the mix, operate under the constant view of the public eye. The online culture has created an environment of constant criticism, where everyone has the authority to pass judgement on another person, and where a person isn't viewed as "people," but as a public commodity. Ten years ago, a person with vision could produce a passion product, deliver it to the masses and be exalted for coming out of no where a practical genius. Now, not only it is impossible to conduct yourself in anything other than complete exposure, but those former geniuses are decried for failing to constantly live up to the public's expectations.

The analogues can be clear at times. Carl Casper's (Favreau) former success is Favreau's own after making Swingers. The demands put upon him by Riva (a wonderfully detestable Dustin Hoffman) mirror those of studio executives who insist that director's use their own talents to create what the studios envision (a message made all the more glaring in light of Marvel's recent nonsense over Ant-man). The demanding schedule of a chef is a nice analogue to the grueling and isolating job of overseeing a film. And the prospect of striking out on one's own, with minor financial backing and little hope of success, is just as true when talking about opening a food truck or making an independent movie. And to a director like Favreau, where the process is just as important as the result, in the film that manifests in pornographic detail as the assembly of these recipes. That pasta dish he makes for Scarlett Johansson was particularly erotic. I really hope that the DVD release comes with recipe breakdowns in the commentary.

But it is a film, not just an expensive bitch fest, so Favreau does include some character development to carry the film from start to finish. I said at the start that the film's thesis is passion. While Favreau was rediscovering his own through making this film, on screen, Casper has to 1) rediscover his own love of cooking, and 2) rediscover his relationship with his son. The film is largely populated with cameos, like Johansson, Hoffman or Robert Downey Jr. People who were willing to stop by and give a friend a hand in putting the thing together (another topic explored in the film via the devotion between Casper and John Leguizamo's Martin). The principles are Favreau and his son Percy, played by EmJay Anthony. Favreau himself has commented in the past on the difficulty of working with child actors, but Anthony does a fantastic job underplaying Percy's disappointment, and later growing respect for his father. By having Casper rediscover his joy of cooking through his love for his son, it provides both the catharsis the writer/director needs, and the development that the character needs.

The film isn't without issues. It is essentially two short films bridged together by characters. The first half concerns Casper's fall, where Favreau takes out the majority of his anger and frustration with the industry through plot-driven calamity. In the second half, it becomes a road movie, with Casper, Martin and Percy driving from Miami to LA, selling sandwiches and growing closer together. Both sections have their lulls, especially when the food truck is doing good business. If the film isn't showing us food or a heart to heart between Casper and Percy (which are the film's best), it isn't really doing anything, and sequence after sequence showing hungry crowds doesn't move things along quite as briskly as you'd hope. The film is also incredibly optimistic, which is fine in context. If the thesis is passion, then the conclusion is that passion unadulterated with lead to success. Once Casper starts feeling for his work and his life again, everything falls perfectly into place. Not the most realistic position, but in Favreau's case it appears to be accurate.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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