Messages from the Kitchen
Sometimes making a film is just a job and tells you nothing more than that an actor or director needed a gig and did well enough at the interview to be taken on for a project. Sometimes, if you are of a mind to, you can look a little deeper and perhaps discern a few truths that even the people responsible were not consciously aware of. I am moved to this observation by Jon Favreau's Chef, which looks like a knockabout, feel-good comedy drama, but on another level is perhaps a bit of a cri du coeur. Or perhaps a cri de l'estomac, I'm not sure.
Acting, writing, producing, directing, and quite probably doing a lot of the on-set catering as well, Favreau plays Carl Casper, a fairly successful Los Angeles chef: successful professionally, at least, for his relationships with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and young son (EmJay Anthony) are somewhat strained. This is only exacerbated when a noted internet restaurant critic (Oliver Platt) descends upon the premises. At the urging of his boss (Dustin Hoffman) Carl plays it safe and sticks to his tried-and-true menu, only to have this savaged in the review.
An unwise excursion into the untested realms of social media and a loud row with the boss about the limits of his creative freedom as a chef later, a video of Carl going ballistic at the critic is all over the internet and the chef finds himself looking for a job. Unsure what to do, he accompanies his ex-wife and son back to Miami on a business trip, along the way taking in a meeting with another of her exes (Robert Downey Jr), who has a radical idea to help Carl get his mojo back: a fast food van!
As if you hadn't noticed, this is a bit of a foodie film: there are lengthy montage sequences of various things being poured, sliced, chopped, grated, fried, boiled, spread, and dusted, usually in close up. The food all looks very nice, but I must confess I find a little of this goes a long way, and - inevitably - the whole pleasure of watching food being prepared surely largely derives from the knowledge that, eventually, you're going to be able to get it down your neck. Non-spoiler alert: Jon Favreau does not materialise in the cinema and give you sandwiches at any point during the film, so there is inevitably a sense in which this film does not deliver on its promises. Then again, decades of a burger and pizza diet (not to mention six years of summer school catering) have pretty much destroyed my palate, so I'm not really the target audience for this film anyway. Given that much of the food on display is hardly haute cuisine, I'm not sure who is - the credits includes a sequence in which Favreau is shown being tutored by a professional chef, but considering the vast quantities of fried and fatty food prepared and consumed in the course of the story, I half expected the entire cast to be felled by massive coronaries before the credits had finished.
Strictly speaking it is not just about the food, anyway: the heart of the story is about Carl rediscovering his love of cooking, and particularly his reconnecting with his son. The scenes between Favreau and Anthony are the most engaging and amusing in the film, which is one of those comedy dramas which opts for a sort of non-specific feeligoodness rather than jokes, and a you-can-guess-how-this-is-going-to-turn-out-from-the-first-ten-minutes plot rather than actual conflict or surprises.
Still, while the film is arguably ten or fifteen minutes too long, it's never dull to watch, even if I never quite connected with it in the way in which Favreau obviously wanted (he should've turned up with the sandwiches). This is largely down to the seriously impressive cast, many of whom are in quite small roles - Downey Jr is in all of one scene, while Scarlett Johansson has a slightly bigger role (but not by much). John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale play Favreau's mates, adding a lot to the guys-having-a-good-time vibe the film generates.
Now, I know you: you're a smart and discerning person (your questionable taste in online film criticism excepted). I know what you're thinking: Jon Favreau? Scarlett Johansson? Robert Downey Jr? All in one movie? Isn't this just really an Iron Man reunion? Well, material-wise, obviously not, but it seems pretty obvious that Favreau's involvement in the world-bestriding Marvel Studios project has given him the heft to make personal projects like this (and the ability to call in favours to get the kind of star cameos I was referring to earlier).
Perhaps it extends further. A key scene in the film comes when Favreau's character explodes, railing at great length against a critic who has been rather negative about the creatively unambitious work he has been doing. 'You just sit there and criticise what we do! It hurts! I really care about this stuff!' cries Favreau, pop-eyed. It's almost impossible, watching this, not to recall that Favreau's last directorial project was Cowboys and Aliens, which the critics didn't exactly go crazy for, and that the one before that was Iron Man 2, which wasn't as well-received as the first one. Could he possibly be having a go at smarty-pantses who review films on the internet? I wouldn't blame him; those people are scum.
And if we're going to speculate wildly, let's really go for it: Chef is about a man whose early promise has been swamped by mainstream success, to the point where his work has become bland and uninspired - so he cuts loose and goes back to his roots, doing something much more personal and individual, leading to a great personal rebirth and eventual vindication. The question is whether that sentence is still accurate if you replace the word 'about' with 'directed by'. Perhaps there's a grain of truth there and Chef constitutes Jon Favreau's attempt to rediscover himself as a film-maker after doing all those corporate SF blockbusters. If so, I don't think he's quite as successful in his endeavours as the main character in this movie, but neither does he crash and burn. Chef isn't hilarious or particularly dramatic or moving, but it's a hard film to dislike.