Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Mixed Menu: Jon Favreau’s Chef

Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau and Sophia Vergara in Chef.

In his new comedy, Chef, Jon Favreau directs himself as a culinary artist whose life implodes with his very messy, very public break from a high-end L.A. restaurant. But it becomes the best thing that’s happened to him when he creates his own food-truck with his adolescent son – a fly by the seat of your pants operation that’s as much fun as it is delicious. That’s a great idea for a comedy, and certainly it’s an improvement over his last feature film project, 2011’s Cowboys and Aliens (which should have been camp hilarity but had entirely the wrong tone). The problem with Chef isn’t the tone, for the most part, but its structure. Favreau hasn’t thought through the whole picture – it’s underdeveloped and bizarrely slow moving in places. The result is material that’s scrumptious one scene (to the eye, ear, and stomach) then flat the next. In a word, uneven.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is having something of a mid-life crisis when we first meet him. By day he’s chef at restaurant that, through the uninspired ownership of Riva (Dustin Hoffman), no longer takes any risks or challenges his creative potential. By night, he lives in an industrial apartment by himself, having divorced his wife, Inez, (Sofia Vergara) and sharing custody of their son, Percy (Emjay Anthony). Slightly schlumpy, a bit of a sad-sack look on his worried brow, Carl seems to have regressed somewhat on the developmental spectrum. He could take better care of himself, having enjoyed his own concoctions perhaps too much, and certainly Percy. He’s only half-present during their weekend father-son outings, reluctant to give the eager boy any but the most lazy kind of stimulation and distracted by the imminent arrival of an important food critic named Ramsey Michel at the restaurant. These issues arise from Carl’s unhappiness at work. Riva refuses to give him any freedom with the menu, insisting he prepare the second-rate dishes that have made the joint popular with the masses. So when Michel (Oliver Platt) pans him later that night on his blog, Carl reads the review to his staff with an air of both sad resignation and pitiably low self-worth.

Scarlett Johansson in Chef.
The film’s initial scenes set up these conflicts with quickness and dexterity, and the comedy is quirky and charming. As Carl’s line chefs Martin and Tony, John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale, respectively, make for smart casting in roles that add saltiness, pep, and color to the lineup. Leguizamo’s Latino suave works well with the New York attitude Cannavale brings, and their snappy banter and physicality off-set Favreau’s Eeyore Casper. Scarlett Johansson plays Molly, the sweet, sensual hostess at the restaurant. She affirms Carl’s underappreciated genius and sympathizes with his frustrations on cigarette and joint breaks out back. There’s chemistry and she winds up back at his place, but only so that he can cook for her at his best level. Favreau cleverly shoots the scene as a visual seduction, Molly reclining like a vixen on his futon, mouth lusciously agape, sharing in the pleasure of sauce and spice as he puts on his gastronomic show. Unlike in Stanley Tucci’s Big Night from 1996, the film doesn’t get obsessed with these creations, though – you never feel like you’re watching the Food Network. Favreau’s come up with interesting, plausible characters and plot lines, with the food holding it all together.

But the narrative also end up being its own undoing, and soon. Rather than move on from the bad review to the expected result (Carl quitting), Favreau rehearses the same basic conflict all over again. Hoffman, grounded in his first scene, has to deliver essentially the same speech again, and this time it makes him implausible. Why on earth would a restaurant owner not want to impress a critic? Wouldn’t he be more upset by the result? And how could he be so ignorant of his responsibility for it all? The pace slackens inexplicably. Favreau bends over backward to make Carl’s implosion self-induced, setting up a ridiculous confrontation with Michel in the middle of the restaurant – an expletive-laced rant that goes viral on YouTube. It’s unfortunate and unnecessary to make his character look so base and petty. The film’s improvisational quality begins to fall flat, and Favreau doesn’t exploit the character set-ups he’s made –Oliver Platt has a great entrance, with his supercilious eyebrows, that goes nowhere, and nothing more happens between Carl and Molly. Platt and Johansson are two fine bits of casting and you want to see them do more with their characters.

Dustin Hoffman in Chef.
Instead, Favreau veers off into odd territory. He adds a bit of generational humor by having Percy teach his dad about Twitter. While it’s funny at first, it’s also hard to buy Casper’s total ignorance of social media. Who in 2014 doesn’t know what Twitter does, even if they don’t use it? Casper’s not that old. But Favreau won’t drop it – the Twitter thing becomes a running fixation, especially when the food truck gets going. Little animated birds float out of the vehicle every time Percy sends a tweet for no apparent reason other than that Favreau thinks it’s cool. You’d think he’s just discovered Twitter. Favreau also turns the story into a kind of middle-brow family picture from the Hays Code era, where the anti-hero has to learn to be a good dad and get back together with his wife. Sofia Vergara is fine in the picture, but it’s hard to imagine how she’d ever wind up with Casper – we don’t see a foody seduction with her. She brings Carl along to Miami with her and Percy and they share a hip-shaking scene in Cuban nightclub that suggests Casper’s rhythms on the dance floor might have won her to him.

But those rhythms remain unbalanced, both with them and the film. Martin joins the group on their truck adventure, and there are some delightful shots of the souped up vehicle and the mouth-watering Cubanos it serves. The movie becomes a road film as Percy and the other two hop-scotch through the Deep South back to L.A., making stopovers to feed the good people of New Orleans and Texas (these scenes allow Favreau to show off the local culinary delights of the regions). There’s a hilarious moment with cornstarch, and a great indie rock band playing in Austin. But they’re interrupted by a pointless scene with a Miami cop and more Tweeting birds. The picture is fun when it serves salsa of both the musical and edible variety, tone-deaf when it tries to be cute.

The single funniest scene in the movie belongs hands-down to Robert Downey, Jr. as Inez’s first husband, Marvin, who funds Carl’s enterprise and lends him the bombed-out truck. I’m not sure if Favreau penned his lines or Downey came up with them on the spot, but he is side-splittingly hilarious. Demanding his guest wear hospital booties in his office, eliciting opinions on swatches for a new carpet, disclosing a potential paternity conflict involving his secretary, Downey’s a wired, metrosexual megalomaniac, with the emphasis on the mania. It’s a lightning-speed mental car chase that smacks the same stupefied, gaping mouth on you that Carl wears. I want a whole other movie just about Marvin. The picture really needs an energy boost, and he gives it a shot in the arm. It doesn’t last, unfortunately. In its best moments, Chef has a jaunty, breezy, loose-limbed feel to it that evokes the rambling humor of Wonder Boys or even Next Stop, Greenwhich Village. But there aren’t nearly enough of them. Chef, if you’ll indulge me, is undercooked.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

No comments:

Post a Comment