Chef (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Chef (2014)

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Carl built his reputation as a chef on surprising choices and a unique palette.  Now, as the years pile on, he starts to wonder if he's been losing the edge of his early career on safe menus and pleasantly bland tastes.  Jon Favreau directs and writes Chef, starring Sofia Vergara, Emjay Anthony, and John Leguizamo.

Kickin' back with the talentJon Favreau’s Chef perfectly anticipates my response. About twenty minutes in, Carl Casper (Jon Favreau), chef extraordinaire, reads a review by one of California’s top critics that begins by explaining how much this critic loves Carl and his early work. Afterward Carl and his coworkers seep further into despair as the critic begins to eviscerate Carl and his cooking, preferring the edgier Carl versus the one who boringly spices up his dishes by telling his staff to “Have fun” instead of altering the food. When we see the bland results “Have fun” gets the patrons it becomes easy to understand how the critic would feel this way.

Carl feels differently. He grows defensive, wonders if anyone really understands the value of good cooking, and gets into daily arguments with his superiors about that one time Carl put that “artsy stuff” into his sweet rolls. At this point my temptation to read Chef as autobiography went into overdrive. Jon Favreau has spent the last decade crafting mass-market entertainments and adding a personal touch along the way. Iron Man would not have been nearly as engaging to watch if Favreau did not allow the camera access to Tony Stark’s face so that we could watch his expression during battle. Favreau understands what’s going on underneath the characters is just as important as the actions they are taking.

Favreau calls in favors from many of his heavy-hitting acquaintences to prop up the limp plot.

Favreau calls in favors from many of his heavy-hitting acquaintances to prop up the limp plot.

Favreau, via Chef, wonders if he has anything left to say. Sure, Carl is talking about cooking, but with dialogue that literally asks himself (and, by extension, the audience) if he has anything left in him and if he still wants to be cooking.   The problem is that Carl asks this question repeatedly, phrased in slightly different ways, throughout the entire film. He repeats his insecurities so much that I had to start wondering if Carl and Favreau were trying to convince themselves that they still had some worth, or the audience. So, in the spirit of the criticism already present in Chef, Favreau crafted and insecure and aimless film that hardly satisfies and makes me long for his early days.

Chef is nothing if good-hearted, but the smiles conceal an empty core where an insecure artist is no longer convinced of their own worth, and demonstrates that they still do by telling us. This is movie making 101. Show, don’t tell, and I’m concerned about the optics of Chef. When I say this I don’t even mean something as involved as the cinematography, which finally comes alive with the rest of the film about 75 minutes in. What I mean is the base scenario which has Carl, popular chef of a prosperous restaurant, insecure about his skill despite the fact that his cooking is so good he is able to bed the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Sophia Vergara. It’s hard to get involved in a character’s troubles when there’s no compelling visual or narrative reason to do so, and Carl’s life is so perfect that we have to rely on verbal cues instead of the cinematography.

But there are signs in Chef that show Favreau still has that personal touch. One amusing and sad moment has Carl hauling his son Percy around town and he finds a puppeteer with a skeleton puppet singing a song about loneliness. It’s blunt, but bittersweet, as Favreau has his look of sadness slowly come into focus as he and his son watch the performance. This is a much more effective approach than having Favreau and crew ramble on about how no one understands him as a chef and that his world does not support unique voices such as his anymore.

Does Chef have a unique voice? Not really. If Favreau’s plan for this was to show that both he and Carl still have something to say in their respective mediums then Chef fails. Favreau’s tendency to bluntly explain everything belies his shaky confidence as a storyteller, and Carl’s path to success comes from openly stealing his ideas from other people. Sure, there’s the idea tossed around that there is no way to make an original story anymore, but the ingredients – be it through dialogue, cinematography, or unique staging – are what make the recipe come to life.

There are fun moments in Chef, but they are overwhelmed by sheer volume of badly projected self-pity.

There are fun moments in Chef, but they are overwhelmed by sheer volume of badly projected self-pity.

Chef has moments of inspiration, like the puppet skeleton, that keep the film from being a total wash. When Favreau steps away from the introspective drama and has his characters cook the film becomes a delight. The moment that Carl throws his son straight into the hustle and bustle of the food truck with no warning is a beautiful one as it’s filled with frenetic cuts and close-ups of the sizzling sandwiches and cheese along the happy smiles of their new customers. But these moments are overwhelmed by drab sequences like when Carl learns, very slowly, how to use Twitter and Vine.

Again, it’s easy to read these as autobiographic as Favreau went from the relatively simple comedies of Swingers and the light special effects of Elf to the rushed spectacle of Iron Man 2. But even with that reading, we’re watching a selfish man use new technology in a visually unimpressive way. Favreau can be a delightful director, and he’s uniquely skilled at finding the heart in big studio productions. He should take comfort in this rare skill, and leave this shallow self-reflection to be polished for his memoirs.

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Tail - ChefChef (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Jon Favreau.
Starring Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, Sofia Vergara, and John Leguizamo.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. I can’t agree with you on this one, Andrew. Chef isn’t overly complex or could even be called slight, but I wouldn’t call it aimless or insecure. Favreau is definitely grasping with personal issues, but I feel like this is his most assured film. He knows what he’s trying to say and does it in this charming film. I do think his ideas are pretty transparent, but I really enjoyed spending time with the characters.

    • I appreciate you taking the time to comment all the same Dan. Chef isn’t as assured as Elf, or even Zathura, both films that are great fun and don’t go to the depths of meandering self-pity that this does. The casting is superb, and I’m always happy to see Bobby Canavale pop up in anything, but the characters less so.

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