Chef, Jon Favreau's new film about a culinary artist who loses his job and buys a food truck, was both a pleasant surprise and a slight disappointment. The surprise? What could have been made-for-TV food porn mixed with contrived family drama is instead more like artsy, high class food porn mixed with charming family drama. Director Jon Favreau throws a surprising amount of cinematic flourishes into his culinary love letter, and it's clear he has a passion for food and for film; but the disappointment? This love isn't woven throughout the film's entirety.
Let's start with the good, because Chef really does have a lot more going for it than you might expect. Favreau made the film out of frustration with big budget Hollywood production, and his passion for independent artistic creation really shines through. The plot follows a talented chef Carl Casper who likewise becomes frustrated with the confines of working in a big budget kitchen where his artistic expression is suppressed and where he's continually forced to make crowd-pleasers. He quits and decides to start a food truck, taking his cooking back to basics the same way Favreau has gone back to basics with his filming. Chef functions as a metacinematic allegory, and there are a few moments where the dialogue feels truly inspired and touches on some of the hard issues of artistic creation. There are discussions about the difficult balance between mainstream hits which lack artistic value and more imaginative works which struggle to find an audience, and this conflict is where the film really comes to life.
Chef also manages to maintain some momentum in another rather interesting area: its editing. For a film which revolves almost entirely around character interactions and dialogue, there's a wonderful amount of comedic cutting and montage. Casper promises to spend the day with his son, and then we get two quick cuts, fractions of a second long, of the pair at an amusement park and a movie theater. This structure represents the son's emotional reaction and creates an experience for the audience which is both immersive and humorous. This is the sort of structural comedy which is missing from mainstream Hollywood, and here we find it in a film which isn't even primarily focused on generating laughs.
Furthermore, when characters make changes at key points in their arcs, the film delivers this information by cinematic means rather than through clumsy exposition. It would rather have us see these changes than tell us about them. Instead of having Casper tell his friends that he read a lot of mean tweets and is becoming discouraged, this information is presented visually with a series of interwoven shots of the chef on Twitter. These are simple touches, but they're what makes the movie feel like it deserves to be a movie rather than a book or a play. It's no surprise to find the experienced Robert Leighton in the editing room, the man behind classics like When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride.
The problem for me was that, after the family gets their food truck, the magic of Favreau's passion largely disappears. Instead, the film transforms into a family drama which has heart but lacks inspiration. Favreau has a natural screen charisma and shares enough chemistry with a lovable John Leguizamo and the young Emjay Anthony to make this change of pace entertaining, but the new story is a bit shallow and easy. A lot of weight is placed on the father/son relationship, and while the father has a chance to share his joys in life, the son is rarely afforded similar agency. Whereas the eponymous chef's culinary aspirations run thematically parallel to a host of compelling issues with the modern film industry, the family drama lacks this additional depth. The movie starts strong, but drops its political subtext after the first act.
Additionally, the broad arc of the narrative springs from a desire to return to a "better" past, a move which always involves an element of regressive fantasy or escapism. Casper/Favreau wants to go back to a time and place where he first fell in love with food/film, he wants to go back to the basics of working independently, and these are reversions which should have more consequences than they do. Reliving the past means not participating in the present or thinking about the future. It's easy to imagine a (more realistic) version of the film where Favreau returns to his roots to discover that his skill has faded, or that he's getting too old to experiment. This would lend the film an element of complexity by highlighting the effects of the passage of time (which the movie wants to ignore). Instead, once he goes back to Miami the thematically compelling allegorical conflict essentially disappears and is replaced by a generic family drama.
The film's presentation of social media is also frustratingly muddled. Much of the film revolves around Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and even Vine, and initially these entities operate as a negative influence, keeping Favreau's aspirations out of reach. But later his success depends on them, and it never feels like a coherent message is developed between these two extremes. The coordinates for an arc are here, but nothing ever happens with it. Casper never recognizes how his relationship with social media has changed. There's also a few quaint moments which rely on the comedic nature of Casper being unfamiliar with social media, and in a world where technology moves so quickly I'm afraid these jokes will sound dated by this time next year.
Overall, Chef was definitely a pleasant surprise from a film which could have been much less creative, and it contains elements which make it greater than the average comfort food flick. It had an impressive grasp on allegorical storytelling, and its preference to convey information cinematically was a refreshing change of pace for the industry. But ultimately the passion lying beneath its first act doesn't find its way into the foundation of the second or third. The tragic irony of Chef is that a film about the frustrations of artistic expression finds itself haunted by the very formula it seeks to critique.
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