Chef, Jon Favreau‘s return to the smaller films which initially made his career, is a (insert complimentary food pun here). It’s been 13 years since he last wrote and directed something (Made (2001)) and his return to full on creative control is a little bit miss but mostly a lot of hit.
The film follows hot, quasi-celebrity chef Carl Casper through a mid-life career change. In short, when a food critic (Oliver Platt) savages his menu, Carl responds through virtual media, leading to a viral Youtube video showing him screaming at the critic. Obviously, he loses his job and decides his only option is to get a food truck and be his own boss, getting back to his roots in the process. Meanwhile, he’s got a son he doesn’t know how to relate to and an ex-wife who still cares for him. He buys the truck and refurbishes it in Miami and a lot of his problems get dealt with on the ride back to Los Angeles, his son along for the ride.
But that’s a little too simplistic for this film, which bills itself as a comedy (I’d argue it’s a light drama with funny moments). Other critics, as well, have referred to Carl’s breakdown as a mid-life crises (It’s not) or even a coming of age film (his son, Percy, played wonderfully by Emjay Anthony, has no real emotional journey). In reality, it’s a film with a very clear message, that in order to be happy, you need to do what you love to do. Once Carl is happy, everything else falls into place.
Now here, I want to take a moment to look at a couple of aspects of the movie and to be very clear, if you haven’t seen it, there will be spoilers. Go see it, it’s worth it, then come back and we can debate.
Okay… let’s get the bad out of the way: Robert Downey Jr.. I understand Favreau directed the first two Iron Man films and could be considered a big part of the RDJ revival, but in this film, he’s in a scene which detracts from everything else. This is Favreau writing a day’s work for a megastar friend to appear in his film with no real point. The character, ostensibly, is Carl’s ex-wife’s ex-husband who is fabulously wealthy and willing to fund the initial purchase of the food truck. The scene, though, is an almost absurdist piece of theatre which took me right out of the movie. Downey is a great actor, yes. And he certainly lights up the screen, but in this case, he’s in a different film that Favreau, sitting on the couch opposite him. The same information could have been delivered in a way which would have advanced Carl’s character, taken up less screen time and given an unknown a headline making role.
Dustin Hoffman. Another celebrity guest. While his performance is fine (really, it’s Hoffman being Hoffman) the scenes he’s in are also problematic for me. See, the main catalyst for action is that the food critic, Ramset Michel, hates the food he’s served. He likes Carl, though. And Carl, for his part, wants to do a good job. In fact, the film opens with him and his line cook and beast friend Martin (John Leguizamo, who really should be playing these kinds of low key, realistic parts more often) breaking down an actual pig carcass for a special menu being prepared for the critic’s meal. It’s Hoffman, as the restaurant owner, who tells Carl to merely do what he’s been doing, that if it’s good enough for the paying customers, it’s good enough for the critic. Carl capitulates and this is what causes the problem. Michel’s review starts off by talking about what a great talent Carl was ten years ago, how he was cutting edge and original and then proceeds to say the food he was served was crap. Except it’s not his fault. The entire event which jump starts the action of the movie is based on something which, really, could be rationalized away.
Now, I understand what he’s going for. There’s certainly a discussion to be had regarding artistic integrity (and in fact, it comes up later, in what I think is probably the most pivotal moment in the film) and a forgotten argument about the lack of vision in business, where good enough is good enough. This point is driven home in the argument Carl has with Hoffman’s Riva, where he explains the reason he was hired was because he was creative and now he’s been reduced to grinding out the same old stuff, night after night. Riva’s argument is that if you go to see The Stones play, you’re going to be upset if they don’t play “Satisfaction,” but it’s a fallacy… While you certainly want The Stones to play your favorite, they haven’t stopped putting out records of new material. The fact Carl never figures this out is a sore point for me. I like him. I want him to succeed. And when he gets justifiably angry at the review I’m with him (granted, this was handled much more poetically in Ratatouille). Where I lose him is when he doesn’t blame Riva for the bad review. Carl could have knocked it out of the park if he’d been allowed to challenge the status quo for one night, but these subtleties are never dealt with, much to the film’s loss.
Last bad thing is the pacing. at nearly two hours, the film is just a bit too long and slightly indulgent. Everything wrong with the pacing of the film can be pointed out in the scene with the Miami cop. It’s like an SNL skit. It hits its premise, finds its punchline… then continues for another three minutes in ever diminishing returns.
The good is everything else. Scarlett Johansson is great as the head waitress and Carl’s confidante (as well as part-time love interest – there’s a whole ‘nother movie about the relationship of these two – or even just her tattooed Los Angelino food groupie). Favreau’s performance as well is mostly spot on. I think where he falters, he falters because his director lets him down (yes, I know he’s also directing). The Cuban music throughout is infectious and toe-tappingly worthy and the food is photographed so lovingly if you’re not hungry by the time you get out, there’s something wrong with your stomach.
Where everything does come together is a scene a little more than halfway through the film. The truck has been purchased and Carl and Percy have been jostling a bit while it’s being cleaned and prepped for service. Percy is looking for fatherly bonding moments and Carl isn’t sure how to deliver them, but they have a few, along with a couple of speed-bumps, so that when they make sandwiches for the local laborers who helped them, it’s a nice moment for Carl to teach Percy the cooking basics.
The key scene, though, comes at the end of this sequence, when Percy, who has been tasked with grilling the sandwiches, is about to send one out burnt. Carl, who we’ve seen getting angry earlier, doesn’t get angry here. Instead, he hands over the reins to Martin and takes Percy outside to deliver a speech about how he loves cooking. Great. We get the Big Picture message. But for me, the key of that scene, and of the relationship arc between father and son, is when Carl asks Percy if he’s ready to go cook and Percy, in complete earnestness, answers “yes, chef.” At that moment we get respect and loyalty, and we get it in both directions. They finally have a way to connect and Favreau, to his credit, doesn’t heavy-hand it. He lets the scene play and moves on.
The penultimate moment, too, is handled well. We know the food critic Michel is going to come back and taste the food truck cuisine (which, thanks to Percy’s 10-year-old tech savvy with Twitter, Facebook and every other bit of social media has become a viral food sensation) and pronounce it good. What happens after that, though, is a nice touch and while not a complete out of left field moment is certainly better than a standard “here’s a good review to make up for the bad one.”
In the end, there’s nothing Earth shattering about Chef. It lives up to its creator’s premise that you have to love what you do to be happy. And it certainly seems like Jon Favreau is very happy indeed.