30 June 2014

Review: Chef (Jon Favreau, LionsGate, 2014)


2014, 114mins, 15
Director: Jon Favreau 
Writer: Jon Favreau 
Cast includes: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Emjay Anthony, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr. 
UK Release Date: 25th June 2014

It’s understandable that summer 2011 wouldn’t rank amongst the happiest periods of Jon Favreau’s life. Gifted a sizeable budget and a fertile premise, Favreau proceeded to undercut much of his previous blockbusting credit with the lacklustre “Cowboys & Aliens”, one of the most prosaic event releases of recent years. The film was rightly dismissed by critics, but audiences also made a point of ignoring it, leading to a substantial financial loss on Universal’s part.   In 2011 Ron Meyer, the studio’s President, name-checked “Cowboys & Aliens” alongside some other notable flops as being responsible for their then waning fortunes. He described the movie as “mediocre” despite the input of “smart people”. Clearly the circus surrounding the film left Favreau with things to say about artistry, conformity and critical etiquette; all of which bubble at the surface of his less bombastically scaled “Chef”. The indie film is clearly a response of sorts to the blog-driven heckles and problematic production associated with his last outing, masked under the fa├žade of a breezy “follow your heart” dramedy. There’s no denying that “Chef” is an occasionally interesting work, and one that boasts a welcomingly chilled tone, but it fails to sustain the promise of its central quandary for the entirety of its bulky runtime.

After receiving a scathing online review and suffering a subsequent online shit-storm, Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) decides to forsake his respectable restaurant gig and pursue more rustic culinary ambitions. Intent on rediscovering his own creative zeal, Carl takes his estranged son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and preferred colleagues (including an energetic John Luguizamo) across the country to provide passionate service to the peoples of America; whilst trying to resuscitate the familial connections negatively impacted by his past professional obsessing.

Without knowledge of Favreau’s history, “Chef” looks a lot like a benign “follow your heart” tale, replete with a redemptive arc and montages of joyous father/son bonding. To audiences aware of the “Cowboys & Aliens” dilemma, it’s impossible to see it along such blunt lines, at least during the opening half. “Chef” descends into thinly worked melodrama well before the denouement, but there’s some genuinely fiery stuff to digest early on. Favreau slathers on the ghoulish anonymity associated with internet criticism too judiciously (Oliver Platt’s food critic has a website masthead with his own face pixelated) and the constant use of social networking jargon becomes a little tiresome, but there are moments where the conversation between creator and critic explodes with real fire. The highlight (both in relation to the film and Favreau’s thespian contribution) sees Casper respond with rage, anxiety and vulnerability in the face of his attacker, providing both the character and movie with gratifying openness. In this one sequence, “Chef” refuses to mask the question at its heart, hollering at critics and audiences alike with heart-breaking honesty. If this moment of intimacy provides any insight into Favreau’s post-“Cowboys” state, then I genuinely sympathise with the film-maker. The desperation and confusion is incredibly palpable, communicated by the actor’s deliberately unfocused and highly charged line delivery. I respect that “Chef” manages to make both its protagonist and director profoundly human, if only for one blistering scene.

It’s a pity then that the movie’s narrative trajectory elects to travel a worn and sugar-coated path. After the initial fallout, “Chef becomes devoid of dramatic tension, with Favreau’s character appealing almost uniformly elated with his new-found artistic freedom. There’s some artificial depth applied via the unconvincingly scripted rekindling of father/son adoration which anchors the movie’s latter beats, but it’s filler amidst Favreau’s indulgent parade of self-celebration. After intelligently essaying the effects snide internet bashing can have on an artist, the film decides to shove two fingers up to the debate, snatching a smug “I’m right and you’re wrong” tone hidden under a treacly exterior. Who cares what critics have to say? I can get Robert Downey Jr to cameo in my movies! Scarlett Johnansson (wasting her time in a nothing part after an impressive slew of recent work) and Sofia Vergara can play my lovers past and present! Even Platt’s hammy work as Favreau’s cyber-nemesis encourages an immature reading of a culturally relevant topic. It doesn't help that the dramatic structure and pacing of the film also fades gracelessly, acquiring the unattractive double-threat of bloat and hollowness. After the first act characters stop evolving realistically, all becoming secondary to Favreau’s parade of congratulatory confection.

“Chef” has a nice ambiance at least. The food looks delicious onscreen (Favreau trained extensively as a cook before production) and the musical accompaniment often has a vibrant zip to accentuate the movie’s proposed lightness of touch. However the film’s grandest achievement – its musings on creation and destruction in the internet age – peak early, leaving audiences with a maudlin family drama that never validates its gut-busting 114 minutes. I wouldn't necessarily send “Chef” back to the kitchen, but after an enticing starter the main course never sings like you want.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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