Thursday, June 12, 2014

Chef (2014)

Iron Chef
Reducing the Hawksian Metaphor

Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is in a career crisis. Having achieved an early success, he has been lead chef for an established LA restaurant for years, overseeing a hand-chosen staff, churning out a popular menu that keeps the customers satisfied.

He isn't, however. Satisfied, that is.

Obsessive, a perfectionist, he spends his off-hours experimenting, mixing, matching, alchemizing, working on new dishes, new tastes, new presentations, sometimes all night, chopping, chopping, chopping (Favreau's cooking montages, to my taste, anyway, are the best part of the movie), preparing a new menu that may never see the light of a palate.

The guy is obsessed—he can't make a grilled cheese sandwich without making a production of it, and it's in those moments that he pays the most attention to detail in his visitations with the son (Emjay Anthony) he shares with his estranged wife (Sofia Vergara), separated because he'd rather stay at the restaurant than with his family. He's particularly OCD right now—a critic (Oliver Platt) is coming by the restaurant to review his work, and Casper wants to create so some dishes that are off the charts and off the menu, but the restaurant's owner (Dustin Hoffman), his employer, insists he stay with what generates income.
Against his better judgment, he complies, and is stunned when he gets a bad review for the pedestrian nature of his cooking for the masses. Discovering that the review has come out on Twitter, he has his son open an account, then engages in a war of words with the critic, which goes viral with challenges and taunts (he isn't aware that his tweets are going public). A rematch is squashed when the owner again insists on staying with the menu.

There is less than 140 characters in this movie
And Casper walks out—quits—leaving his cooks (among them John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale) and the restaurant's hostess (Scarlett Johansson) trying to keep things business as usual. Not much chance of that, when an angry Casper confronts the critic at the restaurant, the video's of which also go viral.
Unemployed, and his reputation being cuisinarted throughout the Twitter-verse, he goes underground to Miami, being nanny to his son while his wife's on business. He takes a chance on her suggestion to see her other ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr., in a scene that would best be described as "random") who has an idea to offer Casper a dilapidated food truck for him to make a living with. With Leguizamo and his son, Casper cleans and renovates the truck and starts a road-trip back to L.A., getting back in touch with his culinary roots as well as his son.

Favreau's film, Chef, is just as precious as all Hell, goes on too long—it feels like three hours rather than a few minutes shy of two—and has one of the tidiest, and unlikeliest endings outside of the romantic comedy genre.
Taking the act on the road
But, it's a wonderful conceit, if you don't think that all it's about is cooking.   Howard Hawks famously made movies about disparate groups of people coming together to make a go at risky tasks—sherrifing, auto-racing, war, flying, in war and delivering the mail, even capturing wild animals for zoo-display.  

That's what the movies were about. But, with everything else going on, it was also about making movies. Those set-ups were metaphors for the gypsy-camp coming together of different types to make a cohesive whole to a common a film crew.
You can look at Chef that way, a film-making metaphor. But where Hawks was a democrat (in the best sense of the term), Favreau is an autocrat, an auteur (or fancies himself one, at least). Because Chef is all about him. Favreau started as an actor, writer-producer, film-maker, making good independent movies that caught the critics' attention. It wasn't until he started making big-budget films for the studios (Elf, Zathura, and ultimately Iron Man, the lynch-pin of the Marvel movie Universe) that his career really took off and he became an A-lister. Those big crowd-pleasers were huge accomplishments, but could hardly be thought of as personal, subject to the needs of the marketplace and the whims of the people who hired him (or even those he hired). After a string of those, it is no wonder that Favreau might want to return to his indie roots, and do something challenging to him, personally, and just as meaningful. Chef is his story, not just of his making, but of his self. A personal fable of marketplace success, but of artistic longing and passion for fulfillment. It's a metaphor of his own work and life, boiled down and reduced to a matter of taste.
This makes Chef seem better—and more important—than the resulting film actually is.  But, one has to applaud Favreau for taking the risk, modest in budget though it may be, to break out of the film-making kitchen he had been toiling in. That is certainly something that deserves applause, even if the results aren't to my taste.

Chef is at its best as a metaphor, not a movie. It doesn't make for a full meal. But it is a nice entree to whet the appetite.

* Favreau would be attracted to the subject matter—he's a foodie, and a something of a beneficent host, as anyway who's watched his Hollywood interview show, "Dinner at Eight," set amid a luxurious multi-course meal can attest.

No comments:

Post a Comment