Friday, May 30, 2014

Good Eats: CHEF


Chef follows a man who once cooked for the love of it, but who, in his comfortable position as the head chef at a decent middlebrow restaurant, finds his passion dimmed by churning out the same old menu night after night. After a high-profile explosion of frustration that ends in him losing his job, he decides to strike out on his own and along the way rediscovers the passion that made him a chef in the first place. It’s tempting to read the movie as a metaphor for its own making. Writer, director, and star Jon Favreau got his start with relatively small productions (Swingers, Made) before getting bigger and bigger budgets (Elf, Zathura, Iron Man), eventually arriving at Cowboys & Aliens, a movie so blandly wedded to the worst storytelling impulses of modern Hollywood that I’ve already forgotten it ever existed. Now he turns up with the small, amiable Chef that says he would rather make something small and likable all on his own, instead of something big and predictable for someone else.

Both he and his character want to take their art wherever the muse leads them and have an audience show up to try the results because they trust the impulse behind it. Some scorn is reserved for customers who just want comfort food that provides what the consumer already expects. (What this metaphor says about someone like me who really likes his Iron Man 2, a movie he’s expressed disappointment with, is probably better left unexplored.) In any case, Chef follows a comfortable path as Favreau’s Chef Casper gets his professional groove back, reconciles with his ex-wife (SofĂ­a Vegara), spends more time with his 10-year-old son (EmJay Anthony), and figures out what he really wants to be cooking.

It is not exactly a scrappy indie, but it’s probably as close to it as a baggy, pleasant, modestly budgeted production filled with recognizable actors can be. It’s the same kind of comfort food cinema Favreau has always been making, but the perspective is smaller and the heart more recognizably bleeding out on its sleeve. It is a shallow movie, and a long and shaggy one at that, but it has surface pleasures that keep it light, loose, and agreeable. Kramer Morgenthau’s bright cinematography finds the sun always shining. The montages of food prep look delicious. The non-stop brassy Cuban and New Orleans-influenced soundtrack is always rocking toe-tapping tunes. The film takes pleasure in its tasty dishes and booming music, and in the easy rapport amongst its characters.

As Chef Casper tries to figure out how to continue his career and find fulfillment in different aspects of his life, the movie ambles along, moving from a work/life balance comedy into a road movie in its second half. Along the way, we meet an ensemble cast of thin characters filled out by familiar faces. Dustin Hoffman plays his ex-boss. John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and Scarlett Johansson worked with him at the restaurant. Oliver Platt plays a famous food critic whose negative review is the inciting incident that gets the Chef fired. (More on that later.) Amy Sedaris has a funny scene as a determined publicist and Robert Downey, Jr. turns up in a very small role as an eccentric businessman who wants someone to take a busted old food truck off his hands. None of these characters are particularly well developed, but the performers are enjoyable presences, able to step into the film and be entertaining for a moment or two without pulling focus from the ensemble as a whole.

It’s too fuzzy and insubstantial to be called a character study, but it at least has a sense of self-awareness. That can all too easily slip away from a writer-director-producer-star driven production. Chef looks upon the creative personality of Chef Casper with an understanding that his ego, pride, passion, and self-doubt combine to create the drive that leads him to success and are the same traits that lead to his blow-up, then feed his drive to reinvent himself. A lazier movie would take the critic character and make him only a snarky villain, but it’s refreshing to see that he’s presented as a man doing his job just as much as the chef is. And when his bad review upsets the chef so much that he throws a fit in the middle of dinner service that ends with him storming out jobless, it’s because the writing picked at preexisting insecurities. The chef knows he could do better. Getting called out on it frustrates him, but that frustration quickly becomes determination.

The movie is confidently pleasant, cooking up an agreeable couple hours of entertainment. It’s no great thing, but it’s enjoyable. Its heart is in the right place, made with as much love as the tasty-looking sandwiches featured prominently in the movie’s final stretch. I bet theaters showing Chef would do well if they added them to the concession stand menu.

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