Saturday, June 28, 2014


Alternate Title:  This is Why You're Fat

One sentence synopsis:    The head chef of a gourmet Los Angeles restaurant looks for creative inspiration by opening a food truck with his son and best friend.

Things Havoc liked:  Jon Favreau, Executive Producer of The Avengers, the first two Iron Man movies (which he also directed), and Cowboys and Aliens, is not the man I would have anticipated personally creating in an indie flick about food, but then he also wrote Swingers, so what do I know?  In Chef, a movie he stars in, wrote, directed, and produced, he plays Carl Casper, head chef of a fine dining Los Angeles restaurant, where he works alongside Sous-chef Martin (John Leguizamo), Maitre-d' Molly (Scarlett Johanssen), and owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman).  The track record for actors who write and direct themselves is not a good one, to say the least, and I've only seen Favreau before in bit roles in Iron Man or Rudy, but to my surprise he does a fine job, wisely eschewing anything too demanding in favor of a portrayal of a real chef with real skill and real problems.  Right from the start, we see him preparing, testing, refining, and producing his food with expert precision, commanding his kitchen brigade with easy familiarity, and generally convincing us that he is, at least, what he appears to be.  He also, wisely, decides against writing a character for himself that is a stand-in for Jesus.  Carl is not an asshole, but he is a distant, divorced father, whose relationship with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and son Percy (EmJay Anthony) is cordial but disconnected.  No (or at least few) raging explosions or histrionics here, Carl is just a guy who happens to be an excellent chef, and given that Favreau's other roles have been those of "guys who happen to be ____", sticking to his strengths is the best plan here.

Another good plan is, when introducing yourself to cinema in a major way, surround yourself with talent.  And while I had not anticipated in this little exercise associating John Leguizamo's name with talent, here we are.  His character, Martin serves little purpose except to follow Carl around and help him as he goes from his stultifying restaurant job to a food truck serving Cuban Sandwiches (which look both delicious, and like they'd make you fat just glancing at them), but Leguizamo is just so damn... well [i]entertaining[/i] as he does it, running his mouth constantly in a slew of in-jokes and references and schtick in the manner that resembles his earlier (annoying) work, but does not emulate it to the point of aggravation.  Hoffman meanwhile, as a restaurant owner desperate to fill his restaurant, is as smarmy as ever, though you can't help but feel for him when it's his money on the line every time his chef decides that there is a "creative rut" being dug and that it's time to introduce people to the merits of vacuum-boiled organ meat or some damn thing.  But best of the supporting characters is actually Percy, Carl's ten-year-old son, who clearly is looking for some way to get closer to his father, be it through cooking or anything else.  Child actors are always a danger in any film, but this one does a wonderful job, playing not some precocious little genius, nor an enfant terrible, nor any other stock thing, but just a normal kid whose reactions to the situations the movie puts him in are entirely realistic, avoiding the designated "wise statements from the angelic child" scenes, in favor of just concentrating on him and his father.  Simpler is better in this case.

And that's really all there is to it.  Indeed this is the sort of movie that almost defies reviewing, so simple and easy-going that there just isn't much to say about it.  And yet despite that, the film is never boring.  Moving along at an brisk pace and never repeating itself, it is simply a series of slice-of-life vignettes, as Favreau's character is dissatisfied with his job, quits it, finds inspiration, and returns to glory.  There are no villains to defeat, no checklist of lessons to be learned, just characters trying to do the best they can by one another and living their lives.  In it's own weird little way, it's almost refreshing to encounter a movie that doesn't have ambitions of being the successor to Hamlet.

Things Havoc disliked: And having said that, I shall now complain about the fact that the movie is not ambitious enough.

There's nothing wrong with simple films, nor with simple stories done right, and I don't think every movie has to lead its characters on a torturous journey of challenge, redemption, and triumph.  But there does need to be something there to keep our attention, and while Chef certainly isn't boring, it just doesn't have all that much going for it beyond the fact that these characters do exist and they do engage in the actions I described above.  There are hints of more, with Favreau's other sous-chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) being conflicted over taking his place at the restaurant, his rivalry with his boss or with food critic Ramsay Michel (Oliver Platt), or his relationship with hostess Molly, but nothing is really developed, as the characters enter or fall out of the scene entirely based on their proximity to the main character, and while that's pretty accurate to real life, realism is a poor defense for a narrative medium like film.

And the case for realism isn't helped by several, strange elements that seem to pop up almost at random.  For one thing, while I'm not the kind of guy who objects to product placement as a rule, the social media apps that this movie features prominently (Favreau's son is, of course, a computer wiz, and popularizes his father's new business on twitter, vine, etc...) gets to the point of an extended advertisement.  The reason product placement annoys people is because it pulls them out of the story, like a commercial break in the middle of a movie on network television.  By the thirtieth time that the movie shows Favreau's son placing a "cool" tweet (with appropriate hashtags, of course), represented by a cute little graphic of a bird flying off to spread the word, even I was starting to wonder just how much the filmmakers had funded the movie out of Twitter's marketing budget.  Leaving that aside, there are also a couple of characters that seem to be inserted as padding, such as Favreau's father-in-law, a cuban big-band style performer in Miami who seems to be in the film largely to humor the performer, or a cameo by Robert Downey Jr, acting like a weirdo, who seems to be there to give the character a truck.  Obviously real life is composed of such vignettes, but as always, film does not reward hemming and hawing with characters or plotlines that aren't intended to go anywhere.  Chekov's Gun is a principle of storytelling for a reason.

Final thoughts:  Simple films are always hard to review, as there isn't anything particularly wrong with them, but their horizons are limited enough to restrict the options insofar as the loftier scores are concerned.  Any movie can, in theory, be spectacular of course, but a movie like Chef is probably about as good as it possibly could be, a nice, charming little slice of life about characters acting as normal people do in a situation that could certainly exist.  It does not seek to exceed these bounds, nor does it do so, but if these sorts of films are up your alley, then by all means go see it, as you're not likely to encounter one done as well as this.

My tastes of course lie towards things a bit more daring than this, of course.  But even I can recognize a simple story done well when I see it.

Final Score:  6.5/10

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