To paraphrase The Simpsons‘ Ralph Wiggum, “the food truck symbolises obviousness” in Chef. Jon Favreau’s first film since 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens is a back-to-basics personal comedy film that probably cost about as much as the catering budget of that film or either of his Iron Man efforts.
What a coincidence then, that it also stars Favreau as the lead character. Chef Carl Casper was once the next big thing in cuisine, but has since settled into a creative rut at a restaurant owned by Riva (Dustin Hoffman). He’s been serving his boss’ menu for five years, but finally loses his tether when he gets a very public critical drubbing from acerbic food writer Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt).
Courtesy of a less-than-ideal introduction to the world of social media, Carl’s subsequent flame war and meltdown at Michel goes viral and Riva sacks him. Handily, his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) calls in a favour to get him a taco truck, providing him with a blank canvas for his culinary art, as well as an opportunity to reconnect with his 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony).
It’s not that Chef is in any way a vanity project- Favreau’s film comes with a line in self-deprecation that’s surprising, for a film in which the director has cast himself in the lead, opposite Sofia Vergara and Scarlett Johansson as his beguiled love interests. Neither is the context necessarily obvious to the casual audience, who’ve likely forgotten that Cowboys & Aliens existed.
From a personal point of view, I can say that if you get what he’s trying to say at first, then you will feel a little beaten around the head with it as the film runs with it, whether it’s in confrontations with Hoffman’s studio surrogate, screaming matches with Platt’s reviewer or the whole scene with Robert Downey Jr, as an acquaintance whose brief presence as a financial booster to Carl/Favreau’s new venture is so on-the-nose, I thought I was going to start bleeding.
Perhaps understandably from a box office point of view, it’s been sold on the involvement of certain stars. No matter how small their roles, Downey Jr and Johansson just prove to be distracting in their limited scenes. In particular, Johansson’s waitress, Molly, is a character who goes nowhere except for flirting and fawning over Carl’s creative genius early on.
Likewise, the prominent “Robert Downey Jr Is Fantastic” pull-quote on the poster is a bit like one of those adverts that make Big Macs look like gorgeous gourmet cuisine. His scene marks the first time I can remember him really slowing down a film instead of elevating it. “Robert Downey Jr Is In This” wouldn’t have looked as cool on the poster, but we should hope that people don’t miss out on something good that they simply haven’t been sold.
That’s because Chef‘s charm lies elsewhere, in the stuff that a viewer can appreciate regardless of whether you know what this represents in the director’s career. Favreau writes and plays a character whose foibles are recognisable from the very first scene between Carl and Percy, but a character who you immediately want to succeed from the outset.
The plot summary above doesn’t cover anything that wasn’t revealed in the trailers, but it’s still some time before the film really gets on the road and it’s in the chemistry between Favreau and the young Anthony that it shines.
The overall effect is somewhat tentative – Favreau comes down harder on critics who had a go at him for executives who compromised his work than he does on the executive figure himself, with the air of a man who’s taking a step outside for this one but fully intends to go back into that jungle with his next project, which is, er… Disney’s The Jungle Book.
You could argue that all of this stuff is only distracting if you know about it, but it’s obviously a personal subject on which Favreau had something to say. Then again, he’s also made this with a love of food. You should heed those warnings about not viewing the film on an empty stomach in the same way as the old adage about waiting an hour to swim after a meal, because “food porn” is about right. Carl’s process is beautifully shot and edited here, sewing up that correlation between cooking and filmmaking nicely.
In the not-so-vast canon of films which use that very same metaphor, Chef doesn’t have the subtlety of a Ratatouille, but it’s difficult to begrudge it for recalling the Pixar film, particularly in its use of the critic character. It also recalls the recent Frank with its unexpectedly good use of social media in the narrative, especially Twitter, and there’s one moving moment towards the end that resembles Cinema Paradiso for the Vine generation.
Whatever its more obvious real-life and cinematic influences, it still feels like Favreau set out to make a personal film. Though it’s not perfect, it’s inarguably his most vital work since the first Iron Man. He might be headed back to the big restaurant with a cleansed palate, but on this evidence, we hope he and other tentpole directors are able to just say “bugger it” and go out in a food truck more often.
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