Monday, July 28, 2014

Right Ingredients, Wrong Recipe

Year: 2014
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

All the online reviews for Chef are populated with unbearably awful cooking puns. I swore never to stoop so low, but the film is way too overbaked for me to avoid their siren call.

I'mma give it to you straight, guys. Chef is roughly three times as long as the amount of time it takes to make a tray of Nestlé Toll House cookies. It would be a much better choice devouring all 180 of those cookies in a row than watching Chef especially considering that it would still be less saccharine than the movie itself.

Indie comedy or Disney Channel original series? You decide!

Chef opens with its title. White on a black background. No frills. The title itself isn't even all that interesting. This lack of imagination permeates the film down to the last frame. I imagine that the plot (which involves an estranged workaholic dad struggling to reenergize his career while connecting with his estranged wife and son) would seem fresh and new if you'd spent the last twenty years inside a test tube (I would have made a "born yesterday" joke, but these plot beats could be sensed even from the womb), but it fails to amuse, especially in the wake of the far superior Begin Again.

In brief. Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) was once a promising young chef, but has been brown-beaten by Riva (Dustin Hoffman), the owner of his restaurant, to simply make the old favorites over and over again. His feelings of being trapped creatively are exacerbated by the food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) when he trashes Chef Casper's cooking on his blog.

While Casper struggles to regain his dignity, he ignores the transparent neediness of his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and generally blows him off during the few moments Percy is not with his mother Inez (Sofía Vergara), who is filthy rich and has no definable job, yet remains the most solidly three-dimensional woman in a script dominated by males written by a man (Jon Favreau himself) who evidently has lost any and all perspective on how the female mind works. 

And a question. Has Jon Favreau ever not had money? The script would seem to indicate that he can't conceive of a world in which poverty might be an issue. In one memorable but certainly not unique scene, the ostensibly broke and maxed-out Casper offers to take his kid to Disney World. As if! Bill Gates himself could only afford about three tickets to that place.

As evidenced by Jon Favreau's wife, Chef does not exist in a universe that operates by the same internal logic as our own.

When he quits his job after butting heads with Riva and accidentally starting a flame war with Ramsey, ending up becoming a phenomenon on Twitter, Carl must struggle to earn back his dignity and status by... borrowing his wife's money and starting an instantly successful food truck. Remember what I said about this script coming from a place of upper-class privilege? The stakes in this film are so low that they wouldn't even pose a threat to the most thin-skinned of vampires.

And that's just but one tonal issue within this supernaturally inept screenplay. The idea of a food truck is bluntly introduced in the first scene (before his job is even on the line) in a piece of dialogue so clumsy and forced that it barrels into your ears like an actual truck. The gags are endless, Carl is shown working day and night but never actually sleeping, conversations go in circles and hit the same points over and over (a single line repeats the same word upwards of three times), side characters teleport across the country to blindly serve the protagonist, and Scarlett Johansson is wasted in a role that involves practically reaching orgasm while watching an overweight man cook pasta.

I mean I've heard of food porn, but this is just overkill.

And that's not all. Either the editing is jarring or the characters have taken some Hogwarts Online™ courses in apparition. Glaring continuity errors spice up some of the blander moments, alarmingly ugly rack focus is brought out to unnecessarily spruce up otherwise normal scenes, and some scenes make you wonder if they only ever got one take and were forced to stick with it.

If I were them, I would have done as many takes as possible while eating that barbecue.

To be fair, this movie isn't all bad. In fact it's not bad at all. It's a frothy fun bit of food porn-infused pop entertainment. But it's so self-indulgent and routine that it's hard to avoid noticing all the manifold flaws in the craftsmanship. Perhaps three duties was a tad too much for director-star-writer Mr. Favreau, who is spread too thin to excel at a single one of them.

However, the man surrounds himself with capable actors. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale operate at a pitch perfect level as a sort of Greek chorus of support staff. Their energy is only brought down when they are forced to interact with Chef Casper, who sinks their chemistry like a stone. Vergara and Johansson work magic with supremely limited roles. And Robert Downey, Jr. injects Chef with a much-needed energy boost at the halfway point.

Perhaps the most remarkable element of the film and one of the only things that recommends it in any major way is its handling of technology. I've made my fair share of complaints and theories about the "texts on the screen" effects of films like The Fault in Our Stars, but Chef brings that trope to its inevitable next level.

Chef Casper's tweets appear onscreen, but in an organic three-dimensional manner that allows them to interact with their environment. They appear differently when viewed from different angles and are even occasionally blocked by other objects. And when they are sent, the text boxes turn into little birds and fly off, perfectly integrating the sound, design, and permanence of a tweet.

It's a tad unfortunate that the best thing about the film is its tweeting, but it's enough to keep the bloated and messy thing afloat. I can't recommend it with quite the fervor that it appears to have been receiving, but Chef is a decent enough diversion featuring a couple solid performances as long as its sybaritic star stays out of the way.

TL;DR: Chef really isn't very good, but it features a unique view of technology and several memorable performances.
Rating: 5/10
Should I Spend Money On This? No, but you won't regret choosing it on a lazy RedBox night a couple months from now.
Word Count: 1127


  1. I just watched this movie the other night and had to rush online to find a review that justified how I felt about this movie.
    I agree with nearly every point you bring up. (the rack focus when Leguizamo is on the phone Favreau? I had to watch it again to make sure I wasn't seeing things. It was so awful!)
    When I first saw the on-screen tweet I cringed because I've grown so sick of it despite it not being overly popular yet; thankfully I ended up enjoying how they went about it (like you said, interacting more with the scene and the little fluttering off when it was sent). I can also admit the small montages of him preparing food are beautiful.
    My biggest problems with it were that it didn't seem like this was really a chef's life. Obviously I don't know much about being an "LA celebrity chef", but growing up with a professional chef for a mother, I was still confused about a lot of it. First off, how can he be such a popular chef and still have no say in the place he works? When the critic came back I definitely thought he would either make what he felt like/had the ingredients for or (once I saw he was preparing food at home) have him bring that in and blow the guy away. (But I guess that'd require more of a complex plot.)
    I was also surprised by how much time he was seemingly able to spend with his kid. (Also, a side note: I can never tell what time of day it is when they're in the restaurant?) Most chefs work a 1-11pm type shift. By the time I'd get home from school, my mother would be at work. Gourmet meals weren't a constant thing because chefs 1. already cook all day and 2. aren't usually home to make dinner. (maybe I'm just jealous of that grilled cheese)
    I was also so frustrated that every single person in that kitchen was male. Despite the never-ending tirade of "women belong in the kitchen" it never holds up when it comes to a professional kitchen. Being a professional female chef is incredibly hard (something "Ratatouille" actually illustrated pretty well in a brief scene) and it was disheartening to see no women in that kitchen, aside from 3 silent servers cleaning flatware. As far as the women in the movie went, I was able to enjoy Sophia Vergara but the rest (which were what? Scarlett Johansson and some background characters?) were absolutely pointless. And Favreau wasn’t even that interesting, most annoying and arrogant. I would’ve really liked Leguizamo playing the leading role. I would’ve enjoyed that so much more.
    So I guess that's a long-winded way of saying: thanks for the great review and I'll probably be checking out mroe of your reviews in the future?

    1. Wow, thank you so much for your well-thought out reply! I'm really glad to hear that you liked it and could find a kindred spirit in not really enjoying the movie that much.
      You're totally right in that the screenplay absolutely devalues women, among many other things including dramatic stakes. And it's great to hear about the chef life from another angle. I hope to hear from you again!