“Feelgood” movies as a breed have a tendency to make me want to throw up rather than weep for joy, and it’s not just the ladles full of syrupy schmaltz that Hollywood throws on by the bucketload at every possible opportunity responsible. The formulaic predictability of such movies may be beloved by at least part of their audience, though to me saying precisely the same thing with minor details changed defeats the entire object of going to see a movie in the first place, especially when most of them are done so badly you despair of seeing any striking and original drama ever again.
Chef certainly falls within the genre, though like the restaurant critic played by Oliver Platt I took the trouble to reserve judgement before sinking my teeth into Jon Favreau‘s soft-hearted soufflé, for he it was that wrote, directed, co-produced and starred in this venture. The dish served up is a movie about food the way that 2001 is a movie about space. Oh, there is a healthy portion food porn on display (you almost expect Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives fame to walk on camera at any moment.) Judging by Mr Favreau’s appearance he is fond not only of cooking but also eating, so this was a theme right up his street.
But this is just the context – the movie is every bit as much about the power of social networking as it is food and the restaurant business. Favreau’s Carl Casper argues with Platt’s critic on Twitter and inadvertently is videoed ranting at said critic, loses his job courtesy of Dustin Hoffman‘s bitchily controlling restaurant owner, yet wins 20,000 followers. No publicity is bad publicity, remember? Within that apparent PR disaster is a solid gold market to be exploited, so the movie makers and marketeers would have us believe, and which their parable sets out to demonstrate.
However, in the final analysis Chef is a movie about neither food nor online marketing opportunities. It is at heart a buddy road movie in which a man seeks and finds his true inner-self, rediscovers the happiness he had long since lost in the pursuit of perfection, reconnects with his adoring son Percy (Percy? Oh for heaven’s sake, the poor kid!), and starts cooking street food even the critic loves. I know, I know – just once in a while, wouldn’t it be more satisfying if he became even more of a malevolent misanthrope and took a butcher’s knife to people who got him down? But then it would be a different genre…
Percy, in case you were wondering, is the product of he and simpering and wealthy Cuban ex-wife Inez (Colombian actress Sofia Vergara), a woman of intense and shimmering beauty who sports a hairy caterpillar above each eye and unfeasibly huge lips, all the better to devour you whole. What puzzled me most about that relationship is why such a ravishing beauty would fall for a chubby chef, but maybe she was whipped up into a frenzy by his boundless passion for food. If so she must also have been whipped up into a frenzy of some description by Robert Downey Jr‘s oddball entrepreneur, her first husband, who does at least offer Casper the foodmobile he later uses to go find himself, as characters are wont to do in these films. Predictably enough, the Carl & Inez chalk-and-cheese pairing re-emerges by the end of the movie, but then you always knew that would happen, didn’t you?
This being a script in the modern vogue, found in many an American comic movie (see Horrible Bosses and very many more), the dialogue consists of much ad-libbed blokeish banter, sometimes funny, occasionally cute and often tiresome, though nothing like as tiresome as the “I-treated-you-badly-but-now-I’ve-come-to-realise-how-stupid-that-was-so-now-I’m-going-to-be-a-perfect-dad” speeches you know are going to and, predictably enough, do come. That’s the point at which I want to grab Favreau by the lapels and give him a good shake while repeating the mantra “life ain’t like that!” In fact, along the way there are many short cuts and improbables that you are intended to disregard, so swept up are you with the fairy tale on screen. Alas, they were a minor irritation and a distraction, but maybe that’s just me being old and crabby.
Friends would consider any criticism churlish, but then Favreau is deliberately taking a swipe at critics he considers guilty of ill-judged and offensive reviews that destroy the soul of creative artists like, well, Jon Favreau, delicate soul that he is. Doubtless he would think I have missed the point and that anyone daring to skewer his movie is a small-minded, poison dwarf of a failure… so I will provide a fair, reasonable and honest summary:
Chef is a likeable enough film enlivened by the food with an unfeasibly good cast making knowing cameos (in addition to the actors mentioned above, Scarlett Johansson makes an appearance in black wig, along with competent performers such as John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale), though the self-congratulatory love-in element unquestionably sticks in my craw. No matter how hard it might appeal to our better nature this is still a movie encapsulated within a tired formula that really should be put out to grass. I’d have preferred a more balanced, three-dimensional (as opposed to 3D) portrait of relationships in all their complexity without the megastar walk-ons. Oh, and since the movie is at its best when dealing with food and cooking, a lot more of that please – or is that too much to ask?