Sunday, June 22, 2014

'Chef' (2014) directed by Jon Favreau

In 2010 Jon Favreau had the world at his feet.  With the rapturously received Iron Man having kicked off the gargantuan Marvel movie franchise he was  Hollywood's new blocksbuster golden boy.  As they began preproduction on the billion dollar grossing The Avengers he was the presumptive director, ready to ascend to the heights of a Spielberg or a Nolan.  Then it all went a bit wrong. The Marvel execs stuck their beak into Iron Man 2, constantly tossing Favreau last minute script revisions and crowbarring in plot elements for upcoming films.  This, coupled with financial wheeling and dealing resulted in a mess of a movie, a production so frazzling Favreau openly worried whether his career as a director was kaput.

And then he made Cowboys & Aliens.  Enough said.

Now, after three years away from the directors chair, he's returned with Chef.  Gone is the CG bombast, in its place a small-scale indie film about a talented artist stymied by thoughtless suits who want him to keep on putting out the same old schlock.  There's more than a whiff of autobiography here, especially as Favreau, writes, directs and stars. Getting back to basics with a tightly crafted personal movie like this is a kind of personal exorcism, taking ones demons and moulding them into art.

Favreau plays Carl Caspers, Head Chef at a prestigious restaurant.  This is a man entirely committed to food, devoting his entire day to sourcing ingredients, preparing menus and actually cooking it.  A few years ago he was the hot new chef in town, doyenne of the food critics and achingly fashionable.  But now, through little fault of his own, he's become complacent.  The owner of the restaurant is eager not to mess with a winning formula, meaning that Casper's been serving the same menu for what feels like forever - every time he attempts to mix things up a bit he's immediately shot down.

Things all come to a head when he gets a snooty review from an online critic (hmm...). Casper blows his top, ending up as a much-mocked viral video.  Sacked from the restaurant and hiding in reclusive disgrace he eventually concludes that he should run a travelling food van where he can have total control over what he serves.  And so we learn that the path to redemption is paved with ham and cheese toasties.  

In a bit of a perverse twist, much of what makes Chef enjoyable is also the reason why it gets a little tedious.  For example, the practically pornographic fascination with food preparation is obviously borne of Favreau's actual passion for food.  In the opening scenes of the film you watch him slice an onion up, his skill with a kitchen knife telling us all we need to know about both the character and the actor's skill.  But injecting so much of yourself into a film makes it feel Favreau cleaning out his closet, and the main subplot of connecting with his precocious son is served up with a few too many spoonfuls of sugar.

That said, Chef is such a breezy, optimistic and modest film that it's difficult to dislike. Favreau is a solid (though not exceptional) actor, but this role plays to his matey, intelligently masculine traits.  Fortunately he's ably supported by an excellent supporting cast including Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman Oliver Platt and an all too brief appearance from his real life best bud, Robert Downey Jr.  I guess when you're a Hollywood bigshot it's easy to corral A-listers for a day's shooting here and there.  That said, they're stars for a reason, and this stable of charismatic characters goes a long way to buoying up the film.  Heck, even the cute kid, Emjay Anthony, is tolerable enough.

Decently handled though it is, the bonding with his son element of the story is riddled with cliche.  What felt far more relevant to me was the way online critics are treated.  I saw this at a press screening, surrounded by others of my ilk, and as Favreau righteously rages against those that smugly sit behind a keyboard and dissect what others have poured their soul into there was a ripple of uncomfortableness across the room.  Favreau isn't so gauche as to broadside against all critics, but there is the definite sensation that the Oliver Platt character is a punching bag against which he can beat out his frustrations.  Maybe in future I will reflect before I dish out some particular cruelty... (nah).

Anyway, Chef is unlikely to attract too much opprobrium as it's pretty good.  It's slight and inconsequential, but the tale of a man discovering inner peace through hocking toasted sandwiches to hipsters just about works.  The passion for cooking burns from the screen; lending it the credibility that's a large part of why it works.  The film is undoubtedly some form of therapy for Favreau, but it's a pleasant and interesting enough therapy to eavesdrop on.


Chef is on general release from June 25th

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