This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will get to pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.
Written & Directed by Jon Favreau
I can’t say I have ever loved the work of Jon Favreau. I watched and moderately enjoyed his early career. I am one of those people who was confounded by the adverse reaction to Made. I think it was one of the few times I laughed at Vince Vaughn. His cringy dumb guy who thinks he is smart schtick made me laugh. I never found his studio pictures like Elf, Zathura, or Iron Man very remarkable. It could undoubtedly be an age thing when it comes to those pictures. So when Chef originally came out, it zoomed past my radar with zero interest in watching it. The world would keep spinning. However, my brother and patron Matt chose this for his April pick, so I sat down and watched the thing.
Carl Casper (Favreau) is the head chef of a moderately popular fine dining restaurant in Brentwood, Los Angeles. He’s sharing custody of his precocious preteen son Percy with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara). His career is going well until a food critic comes to his place, and the owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), orders him to stick to basics rather than pursue a more refined & experimental tasting menu. The result is a review that says Casper’s better days are behind him, and the chef becomes increasingly insecure. This leads to a moment of confrontation with the critic that goes viral and leads to Casper walking out of his job. He tags along on a trip to Miami with his ex and son, where the opportunity to run a food truck happens. This experience causes Casper to bond closer with his son and recaptures his love of food.
I was aghast when this film ended. Chef has an excellent first twenty minutes or so; I was deeply engaged. Then I realized this movie was never going to have any actual conflict arise for the main character. Once we get past the lousy review, the film just becomes a series of things happening to Casper, which he expends little to no effort to overcome. The pinnacle of this is, after a trip to get beignets with his son in New Orleans, his sous chef (John Leguizamo) panicked, asks why Casper hadn’t been picking up his cell phone. Did they get ticketed for parking somewhere they shouldn’t? Are the stoves on the truck not working? Nope, many people are waiting in line, and then everything goes fine, and they serve everybody.
Earlier, they park the truck on a beach in Miami. A beach cop (Russell Peters) rolls up to tell them they can’t park there. Oh no, will there be a conflict that leads to the truck being towed away? Nope, the cop recognizes Casper from the viral video and wants to take a bunch of selfies. And nothing comes from this encounter. This continues to the ending where the food critic has been sending someone to get Casper’s food from the truck and wants to back him to open a new restaurant that will be whatever Casper wants to make. And he and his ex-wife fall back in love and get married again at the end. The character literally doesn’t have to overcome anything throughout this story.
This movie has a talented full cast: Favreau, Vergara, Hoffman, Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johanssen, Oliver Platt, and even a cameo by Robert Downey Jr. Favreau has cited some great food movies as his inspiration, including Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Big Night. Love those movies. The problem is that too much of Favreau’s personal life leaks into the film, something he has said was a part of the story. The tirade he goes on about the food critic’s review feels transparently like a response to critiques of Favreau’s movies. There’s stuff about him feeling like a neglectful father because of his film career but covered in the veneer of the food industry. However, Favreau doesn’t seem introspective enough to really go deep with his guilt over this and makes it an easily solvable, sitcom-like experience in the picture. Casper and his son never really have a profound falling out and just sort of resolve things. Everything in the picture is casually resolved.
Jon Favreau allegedly wanted to “get back to basics” with Chef, and I’m not really sure what that means when I look at the final product. It’s not a well-written movie. It looks great because he’s working with people at the top tier in the film industry. I don’t even find the food that great looking in the movie though, I can think of many other films that manage to evoke a love of food much better. Ratatouille made CG-food look more enticing than this movie does. Tampopo is another picture where you understand why food can be so desirable. The food in Chef is much like the movie itself, great looking but lacking flavor.