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 on Friday, with some early viewers suggesting 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.
Instead, 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'd been doing bigger movies," he explained in his introduction, recalling how the concept for "Chef" suddenly inspired him to sketch out an eight-page outline. "That hadn't happened to me since 'Swingers,'" he said, instigating a rain of applause for simply calling up memories of that sweetly affecting proto-bromance. Favreau positioned "Chef" in exactly the context it needed: "I have no lofty aims with this movie," he said.
But then he went one step further by positioning his production — 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 certain confident entertainment value in its opening scenes, initially benefits from Favreau's likable 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 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 an agreeable flow, 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 overtly tedious.
Nevertheless, as the movie 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. By its later scenes, "Chef" only finds respite from its bland qualities through the scrumptious-looking dishes constantly on display. 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 layer of analysis in 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.
No matter the lightweight dimensions 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. The value of the current environment for independent filmmaking isn't related to making decent movies for cheap, but the ingenuity that such liberties allow.
That much was clear at a far smaller venue a few blocks away, later in the evening, with the premiere of Dan Beers' feature-length debut "Premature." A teen sex comedy unapologetically indebted to "Groundhog Day," Beers' giddy feature embraces the sophomoric tradition of "Porky's"-era horny male humor with a warm, consistently funny attitude, like a scrappier version of "American Pie." The premise alone virtually seals the deal: Smarmy virgin Rob (confident newcomer John Karna) is battling a rotten day with his foul-mouthed buddy (Craig Roberts) and fretting over a college interview with an irreverent recruitment officer (Alan Tudyk), before seeking respite with a fleeting sexual encounter. But that's when "Premature" goes gonzo: Poor Rob discovers that each time he ejaculates, the same day starts from scratch. Even Phil in "Groundhog Day" didn't have to shoulder such an awkward burden.
As Rob repeatedly experiences the same few hours of humiliation, eventually taking advantage of the situation to figure out his real priorities in life, Beers' screenplay manages to sustain the outrageous scenario with a string of jokes that don't take the underlying goofiness for granted. Instead, the writer-director builds on its crass foundations with constant inspired one-liners. (Example: "You're going to love sex. It's like jerking off with the best sock on the planet.) "Premature" even manages to uncover hints of depth as Rob recognizes that his best source of longterm companionship lies with his supportive childhood friend (Katie Findlay).
The movie struggles in parts to overcome its sloppy production values, while a couple of mean-spirited jokes (including one involving the assault of a female classmate and another centered on racist stereotypes) fall flat. For the most part, however, "Premature" maintains a consistently enjoyable feeling due to a shrewd script that foregrounds the genuine emotional connection between the characters in spite of the ubiquitous silliness around them. Most of all, though, it succeeds by simply offering up one joke after another. There may not be a more shockingly irreverent bout of lewd humor this year than the sequence in which Rob escapes a horde of bullies from the high school volleyball by jerking off in front of them.
The achievement has strangely bittersweet connotations by arriving at SXSW just a few weeks after the death of "Groundhog Day" director Harold Ramis, suggesting that the real comedic innovation of the Second Second legends has migrated to the microbudget space. The degree to which "Premature" flaunts its stupid gags while containing an approachable vibe is an altogether more satisfying outcome than any frame of "Chef." Favreau's inoffensively mediocre comedy reeks of privilege, but "Premature" is a gross-out farce that's consistently down to earth.