Sunday 6 July 2014

Review: Chef

Year: 2014
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sofía Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, John Leguizamo

Synopsis is here

When I worked at a multiplex, a peculiar thing happened during the release of the first Fast & Furious film. The moment all the track suit decked, boy racing audience left the cinema, a distinct rev of engines could be heard, while the smell of burnt tires filled the air. We were always surprised that we didn't witness any accidents. The Fast and The Furious is not high art, but the effect on its core audience appeared more profound than many of the more obscure, artier features I frequent. Now, after watching Jon Favreau's Chef. I found myself producing this calorie drenched monstrosity at 11pm at night:

Returning to the type of stripped down affair Favreau was known for before blowing up big in Hollywood, Chef presents itself as the little film that could. The film wants to earnestly touch upon the role of the artist, but it's obvious that things have changed for Favreau since Swingers. The subject of food is easily substituted for film as Favreau casts himself as a Chef who finds himself critically and creatively stifled. It's not only clear to see where Favreau is heading with his lead character's arc (filmed off the back of Iron Man 2), but with his cast too. It's a smart touch to cast Dustin Hoffman as a restaurant owner (read Producer) whose stumps up the money for his chef but has no time for the distraction of a diverse menu. Having Hoffman, who came to prominence during the director led New Hollywood era, as a blinkered bean counter of the establishment, hints at a subversive bite. No blood is drawn from the chewing, however, as Favreau can now slap Dustin Hoffman into his movie.

Chef does spend some of its time balancing precariously between a film about an artist being an artist and not wanting to be too damning about its real subject. While its notes on criticism and how it affects a person's work and family life are much more mature than Lady in the Water (2006), it doesn't beat the deft commentary delivered by Pixar's Ratatouille (2007). This doesn't mean that Chef isn't being honest with itself, despite needlessly shoving Robert Downley Jr and Scarlet Johansson into roles due to being work colleagues with the director.

The fact is, to expect Favreau to merely distill every aspect of his filmmaking to a late 90's indie, is naïve. Scarlet Johansson and Sofía Vergara are somewhat smugly cast as love interests for the now more portly Favreau (still a genuinely likable screen presence), but this was the slubby actor who had himself swing dancing with Heather Graham in a script he had written. The film's outward narrative tension isn't particularly strong, yet like Swingers (1996), a film about a man looking inside himself once more to get back on the horse, Chef works because the characters have such an affectionate and easy going sense of charm, that they're hard not to like. It's interesting to see that in terms of structure, humour and general sensibility, when the budget drops, Favreau hasn't really changed, despite some thematic flaws. What he delivers is a light and enjoyable comedy with wholesome characters and a cast that's game. Yes, it's a thinly veiled chance to show off a catchy soundtrack and gorgeous street food (Favreau refitted his kitchen after filming), but Chef at its heart of hearts is a sincere attempt to leave you feeling fuzzy. Chef doesn't have the barbs to put it on the level with the likes of The Player (1992), but there was enough in there to make me bring out the pots and pans and indulge in a little passion.