A version of this review appeared at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival. “Chef” opens in several cities on Friday.
Jon Favreau looked oddly humble at the world premiere of “Chef,” the
actor-writer-director’s first smaller, character-driven effort since the
earlier days of his career, when he wrote “Swingers” with his pal Vince
Vaughn and later directed “Made.” Buzz hadn’t been on his side ahead of
the screening, which opened the SXSW Film Festival in March, with some
early viewers pegging Favreau’s return to the arena of character-driven
comedies after shifting into blockbuster mode with two “Iron Man” movies
followed by “Cowboys and Aliens” as a total dud.
It’s not quite that, but the story of a top-rated California chef
(Favreau) driven mad by a bad review and forced to start his career from
scratch is an intermittently amusing change of gears made for no other
reason other than so the filmmaker can take a breather. The SXSW crowd
at the Paramount theater, which tends to laugh at every joke as if were a
masterful punchline, gave Favreau all the validation he needed—but if
“Chef” represents a triumph for him, it’s hardly indicative of anything
beyond his own personal needs.
“I have no lofty aims with this movie,” he said in his introduction,
but then went one step further by positioning his passion project —
which secured a theatrical release with sizable distributor Open Road
Films long ago, co-stars Dustin Hoffman and John Leguizamo, and includes
cheeky cameos from Favreau staples such as Robert Downey Jr. — in the
broader landscape for independent cinema. “You can do smaller movies
again,” he said, singing the praises of the low budget arena. “You can
make movies that aren’t just about fantasy and escape.”
However, “Chef” unquestionably plays just like that — at least in
relation to Favreau, who appears in nearly every scene and seems to be
aiming for the arena of his early career even as it remains just out of
his reach. The movie, which maintains a lighthearted tone in its
earliest scenes, benefits from Favreau’s energetic screen presence.
As the Venice Beach-based Carl Casper, a single dad who appreciates
the autonomy of his kitchen gig allowed by his moody boss (Hoffman),
he’s an instantly relatable workaholic enamored of his routine. But his
comfort level frays when a cantankerous local critic (a wonderfully
subdued Oliver Platt) tears apart the menu, enraging Carl, who discovers
that the bad press has turned all of Twitter against him. When his
superior won’t let him alter the restaurant options so he can give the
critic a second chance, Carl walks out on the job, but not before
unleashing a “Network”-style meltdown at the restaurant captured on the
cameras of every customer. Naturally, the video goes viral, yielding a
cautionary tale about the power of social media as only someone in the
public eye could tell it.
At least, it would address those topics if it developed them
further. But Favreau has no sweeping thematic aims here: While Carl
resists the pressure to play up his newfound celebrity by joining the
cast of “Hell’s Kitchen,” he’s suddenly thrust into a desperate place
that makes it hard to imagine he can recover. Favreau follows the
proceedings endured by his everyman with a genial, meandering pace, so
that even when the movie starts to drag during later scenes involving
Carl and his young son bonding over their new food truck production, it
never feels tedious.
But as the story hums along, it’s hard to shake the perception that
Favreau simply called up a bunch of famous friends to hang some food
porn around a flimsy plot. As self-indulgent vanity projects go, this
one’s pretty innocuous, if only because it’s always easy on the eyes.
Even so, there’s a definite analytical dimension to Carl’s journey.
Shifting from the upscale restaurant world to a less glamorous arena,
the character’s progress evidently reflects Favreau’s own attempt to
return to his roots. Tellingly, even when Carl starts selling Cuban
sandwiches on the beach, he’s recognized by a passing cop for his
previous achievements. It’s like Favreau is winking in the mirror while
the rest of us just watch from the sidelines.
No matter the lightweight qualities of the project, “Chef” still has
Hollywood DNA in its bones, which negates its director’s positioning of
the movie within the developments of the indie sphere. Consider “Chef”
alongside the likes of the 2010 thriller “Bitter Feast,” Joe Maggio’s
atmospheric two-hander about a chef who actually kidnaps and tortures
one of his critics. “Bitter Feast” engages with the same world of
obsessive foodies and the industry surrounding them with a far shrewder
degree of satiric engagement.
Viewed together, it’s clear that Favreau’s assertions about the
liberating climate for producing non-studio product misses the point. As
always, the value of the current environment for non-studio filmmaking
isn’t related to making decent movies for cheap, but rather the
ingenuity that such liberties allow. The only fresh ingredients in
“Chef” are its mouth-watering delicacies.