By Preston Wilder
If Chef were a meal, it’d be something classy-looking but essentially familiar – a tuna steak, or a filet mignon – followed by an extended dessert course that goes on for almost an hour, helping after helping of sweet comfort food like ice-cream or chocolate cake. Kitchen travails loom large in the first half, Jon Favreau as a chef trying to practise his art amid the clatter of sharp knives and finely-chopped vegetables, and it’s all quite amusing (it’d be even more amusing if the plotting was plausible), then it gets self-indulgent, going off on a Food Network-style cross-country ramble – beignets in New Orleans, barbecue in Texas – blended with father-son bonding that’ll test the hardiest sweet tooth.
Chef is welcome, of course, being a personal project made outside the maw of the big studios. It’s surprising that it even opened in Cyprus, except that Favreau (who also wrote and directed) is a big Hollywood player – he made the first two Iron Mans, which explains the presence of Robert Downey Jr in a sleazy cameo (though nothing explains the presence of Scarlett Johansson, totally wasted in a generic Helpful Girlfriend role). In any case, it’s a breath of fresh air seeing this kind of small, loose comedy at the multiplex; but did it have to be so lame-brained?
Exhibit A: Favreau is chef Carl Casper, formerly inventive and cutting-edge, now stuck making boring crowd-pleasers like French onion soup and chocolate lava cake in a restaurant owned by unimaginative Riva (Dustin Hoffman). A noted blogger gives him a bad review, so Carl goes on Twitter and challenges the critic to a return match where he’ll cook the food he really wants to cook. Their exchange goes viral; thousands of people are on tenterhooks to see what’ll happen – but stick-in-the-mud Riva wants Carl to keep cooking the same menu (“Be an artist on your own time!”), and offers an ultimatum. Carl quits in a huff, then comes back to the restaurant while the blogger is dining and lambastes him in a full-on rant/meltdown that also goes viral.
As a prelude to the main plot – Carl goes back to basics to rediscover his culinary mojo – this opening half-hour is fair enough, but in fact the plotting is senseless. Carl holds every card in his dealings with Riva. A famous critic is coming to the restaurant to try his food; the whole world is watching; all he’d have to do is Tweet something like ‘Got fired for trying to cook more imaginatively’ and Riva would be ruined. Indeed, he doesn’t even have to Tweet it; he can just return to the restaurant and, instead of ranting at the critic, sit down at his table and explain what happened. Weirdest of all is that Favreau the director cross-cuts between the dull food being served at the restaurant and the vibrant dishes Carl is cooking at home at the same time – so the obvious ploy would be for him to pack a sample of those dishes and bring it to the critic, to prove his talent. Yet he doesn’t.
Indeed, those dishes are forgotten – which is a shame, as they look really interesting (“artsy shit,” as Riva likes to put it). Carl pan-fries squid with chorizo and peppers, drizzles sauce over slivers of pork belly then, for dessert, smashes up a sheet of burned sugar, puts the crumbs through a sieve then scatters them over berries and crème fraiche. Yet the film behaves as though Carl’s haute cuisine were as misguided as the stodge he cooks for Riva, the entire second half – the extended dessert course – taking him to a food truck in Miami where he specialises in ‘Cubanos’, ham and cheese sandwiches so rich that a layer of butter is slathered on the bun prior to grilling. Making greasy fast food and hanging out with his perky 10-year-old son; that’s Chef’s idea of happiness for a chef. And what about being an artist? He can be an artist on his own time!
Chef is lazy, and gives the impression that it wants to be lazy. It feels like a case of Favreau (who looks like he enjoys his food) setting out to relax, take a break from blockbusters and make a film on a subject close to his heart. It’s an amiable movie: Carl’s an old-school charmer flummoxed by technology, his best pal (John Leguizamo) is unfailingly supportive, his kid is crazy about him, his divorce seems to be the most amicable divorce ever. It’s like everyone was so happily bloated on ham and cheese sandwiches they couldn’t even think about character conflict, let alone plot. The only strange aspect is the film’s insistence on Money vs. Art, when its hero ends up cooking sandwiches – but maybe it’s not so strange: Favreau’s a Hollywood guy, and when they tout ‘creativity’ there it’s much more likely to translate into fast food than haute cuisine. Just as long as we’re getting dessert with that.
DIRECTED BY Jon Favreau
STARRING Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony
US 2014 114 mins