Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Chef" is Pretty Boss

One of the basic questions I ask when unpacking my reaction to a movie is, what audience was this movie meant for? Jon Favreau's new film "Chef" is not a family film, even though the most important relationship is between the main character, Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) and his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony). Though the humor is gentle, it's a little too ribald for younger audiences. Is "Chef" for foodies? To an extent. The main character is a chef who has become complacent in his life and work, and must set out to reclaim his identity. A big part of this is cooking the food that he wants to cook on his own terms, and rebuilding his reputation from the ground up. But though it makes good use of food culture to tell its story, I don't think this is the film's primary audience either. No, "Chef" is aiming quite a bit broader. It's a feel-good film for guys, the male equivalent of all those Meryl Streep movies about bonding and self-discovery and starting the next chapter of your life. And it's a pretty good one.

And how appropriate that it should come from Jon Favreau, whose track record making big studio films has been rocky lately. After "Iron Man 2" and "Cowboys & Aliens," it's nice seeing him working small scale and simple again. And it's hard not to draw parallels between Favreau and Carl, who lands himself in hot water after getting into a social media-fueled tiff with a food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), and trades in a steady gig as head chef of a restaurant for a food truck selling Cuban sandwiches with Percy and their sous chef pal Martin (John Leguizamo). There's definitely a wish fulfillment fantasy aspect to "Chef," where Carl's ex, Inez, is played by Sofia Vergara, and a Twitter marketing campaign managed by a ten-year-old is enough to draw crowds to greet Carl at every stop on his cross-country tour. At the same time, so much of the story has a ring of authenticity to it. Clearly Favreau took pains to get the food and the food preparation right, even spotlighting the contributions of one of the real chefs who worked on the movie during the credits. There's also an emotional honesty and vulnerability to Carl Casper that 's refreshing to see, that keeps him sympathetic and worth rooting for.

If "Chef" is a foodie movie, it's one that takes pains to be accessible to the common man, where Carl is frequently engaged in lightly vulgar banter with Martin, and father-son bonding has the highest priority. Kitchen culture gets the focus, rather than the more hoity-toity dining culture that we see more commonly. That puts "Chef" in closer company with older family restaurant dramas like "Big Night" and "Eat Drink Man Woman." At the same time it's very much a product of the current internet age, where the plot hinges on Carl misusing Twitter, and a bad interaction going viral. Part of his learning curve is getting comfortable with technology, and appreciating its uses. The way that social media is depicted in the film is fanciful but mostly realistic, and a good sign that we're getting away from the sensationalist portrayals of life online that have been a bothersome fixture of mainstream cinema for far too long.

Though this has been billed in some circles as Jon Favreau's return to his indie roots, "Chef" is far too slick and star-studded for that. Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., and Scarlett Johanssen were recruited for brief appearances in minor roles, and there are some instances of corporate branding that can't help but stick out. This feels like an indie by default, the kind of smaller scale movie that the studios are wary of making anymore, which is a shame. "Chef" is clearly a passion project for Favreau, a charming, low-key, big-hearted crowd-pleaser that has had no trouble finding a receptive audience. It's a little trite and very indulgent, but it's easy to forgive those flaws when you have a movie so personable and so eager to simply entertain. More big-budget films are surely in Jon Favreau's future, but I hope he keeps making the time to make a few more small ones like "Chef."

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