May 6, 2015

Chef (2014)

I've always rather liked Jon Favreau. He's what Hollywood types tend to refer to as a 'multi-hyphenate', in that he's often a writer-producer, or actor-director. He kickstarted his career with the low-budget comedy Swingers (1996), in which he both wrote and starred, before graduating to directing with his 2001 film Made. From there he jumped to larger and larger projects starting with Elf (2003), then Zathura (2005), and finally the mainstream Hollywood blockbusters Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010) and Cowboys and Aliens (2011).

His 2014 film Chef sees him deliberately pull back, presenting a relatively small-scale comedic drama without visual effects or over-the-top bombast. Instead it's a film about characters, and making food. Once he again he performs multiple roles: in this case writing the film, playing the lead role, directing it and co-producing, all at the same. He's done a great job on all four fronts.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is a professional chef living in Los Angeles. Once he was a widely celebrated professional, widely feted and acclaimed, but in recent years he's been stuck in a rut working on the same menu at the same upscale restaurant. When a food critic (Oliver Platt) brutally skewers him in an online review, Carl heads into a mini-meltdown. He loses his position, and ultimately takes to setting up a food truck in Miami. He then drives the truck across the USA back to Los Angeles with his assistant chef (John Leguizamo) and pre-teen son Percy (Emjay Anthony).

This is not a film packed with surprises. There are no twists and turns, or unexpected events. It does pretty much exactly what you'd expect it to do. That's not a criticism: there's a lot of value in a clear, well-told story, and a lot of entertainment to be found it giving the audience exactly what it expects.

The performances are generally very strong, and fairly naturalistic. Dustin Hoffman gives a small but memorable performance as the owner of Carl's restaurant. Robert Downey Jr also cameos as the ex-husband of Carl's ex-wife who funds the food truck in the first place: it's a weirdly out-of-place scene and really doesn't work in the context of the overall film. Emjay Anthony, in his debut as Percy, is great, and manages to be a believeable and likeable 12 year-old kid without resorting to 'wise beyond his years' cliches.

One place where the film really excels is in the presentation of the food: it's about a chef and the preparation of meals, and Favreau shoots that preparation in an excellent fashion. When he decides to put together a food truck he decides to cook Cuban food, and the film had me desperately craving to eat the same.

Favreau also plays a lot with social media, with Carl's first attempt at using Twitter leading to his initial meltdown, and Percy using all manner of social media platforms to promote and sell the food truck as it drives across America. The extension of social media onto the film screen - text seemingly floating across the screen as the characters type - is something that a lot of productions have used of late. It's used here, in the Liam Neeson film Non-Stop, the BBC's Sherlock, and a few other places. I'm not sure who used it first, but it's caught on for a reason: it's a dynamic, involving way to incorporate something that's visually rather boring.

This is a relaxed, relatively aimless film. No one is ever really in any sort of peril, and things all fall into place without serious incident. That's actually it's biggest strength: it's comfort food for the moviegoer. You can simply watch it and have a nice time. It's true that the film's conclusion stretches credulity a little, and seems a little on-the-nose, but by that point it's earned too much goodwill to get seriously derailed.

I've enjoyed Favreau's big-budget fantasy pictures, and seem to be one of the few who genuinely liked Cowboys and Aliens. That said, it's great to see him try his hand at something a little smaller and intimate as well. He's great at both.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know who used the text messages on screen technique first, but within weeks of me first seeing it on Sherlock, I also saw an episode of Neighbours doing the same thing. So I wonder if perhaps the technique began somewhere that none of us even thought to look :D


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