Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Chef

At some point, Jon Favreau was considered indie. Granted, I was a little young when Swingers was a thing, and that moment isn't really part of my memory. Most of what I know about Favreau's career behind the camera can be summed up thusly: Iron Man. When that's the bulk of what you know about the guy, the shift from Marvel blockbusters to a tiny, sun-soaked piece like Chef feels like a move back towards something that could be described as "personal" film making. Compared to the usual summer blow-out, Chef plays as an intimate film with much of the fuss and fight of a public split from the spotlight.  It's hard to separate Favreau himself from the character he's written, Carl Casper, a once-was and could-again-be great chef toiling under the tyranny of a too-stubborn restaurant owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman).  As a major critic preps to visit Carl's kitchen, Riva puts the kibosh on menu edits and forces Carl to "play his hits."  The result is a profoundly negative review that results in a public meltdown, with lots of sharp jabs at critics along the way. You can kind of feel the film fighting for its own space in those moments, and as we follow Carl on his gastro-journey, the whole project asserts itself again and again as one of those restless movies about striking out on one's own, hunting, seeking, running towards self-fulfillment.

Chef is a comedy, and one with a feel-good vibe that was visible from months out. You've got your father/son relationship, you've got the satisfaction of watching someone successfully strike out on their own, and, yes, you've got plate after plate of food.  If anything sets Chef apart from your average indie ensemble roadshow, it's the intense hunger you will feel throughout the film.  We could talk about the actors, we could talk about the way the banter flows, we could talk about how most of the film is bright, amusing, natural, and pleasant to watch.  It's worth mentioning, maybe, that it's nice to see John Leguizamo in a key role as Carl's sous chef/bff, but that making him the object of affection for both Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara may be a bit of a stretch.  And yeah, the whole thing is sweet and well-meaning, wearing its heart on its sleeve in a way that's affable even as it's occasionally prone to whining.  Flat out: I liked the movie, genuinely, and the crowd left dancing in the aisles to the soundtrack and smiling.
Really, though, all that stuff comes in second to the way Favreau shoots and focuses on food.  Chef is food porn in the extreme, beyond even I Am Love in its attention to preparation and devouring. Ostensibly, Carl's whole "suffering artist/struggling parent" story is the key narrative, but really - artistic process be damned, this is a movie about sandwiches. There's a majesty to the way even the most mundane, unattractive meals are filmed here that makes every little crumb look like a Platonic ideal. Cubanos, slow-smoked Texas barbecued brisket, carne asada, pasta, Cafe Du Monde beignets, and don't even get me started on the beauty of that grilled cheese sandwich.  While judging something based on how delicious looking the food is is probably a better criteria for a menu or a Pinterest board, there's something tremendously satisfying about the attention Favreau relishes on the meals at the heart of Chef. The construction of a grilled cheese, for instance, gets thrown over a beat and treated like a slick action scene would be in Iron Man. Instead of seeing Tony Stark mingle at a party or work on building something, we watch Carl pile up cheese, artfully squeeze sauces, and delicately plate food in a way that's as visually appealing as it is hunger-inducing. It may not be the most original object, but it's satisfying in the way the best meals are.



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