3 Reasons “Chef” is Kinda Neat!
February 5th, 2015
My good friend Matt “Stag” Schulman (Matt of “Matt & Jack” fame) summed up Chef as “a movie version of Sandwich King.” I’m going to explain why that’s a really, really good synopsis.
1. Jon Favreau looks a lot like Louis CK these days.
It’s not just the stray hairs and shlubbiness: Favreau’s demeanor as Chef Carl Casper is very similar to CK’s droll fictitious self in Louie. Both characters attempt to juggle dogged professional lives with the task of raising impressionable young kids; both artists, though, have almost total control over their projects.
As a result, some outlandish casting occurs. In his show, Louie’s agent is a freckly teenage Jew, and his wife is black (his kids, on the other hand, porcelain). Favreau treats himself to Sofia Vergara as an ex-wife and Scarlett Johansson as a honey dip. The motivations in each case aren’t crystal clear, but in any case, these decisions forsake any attempt at verisimilitude. And why not? If your criticism stops at “she would NEVER marry him!” then you are missing out.
Louie garnered so much praise when it hit the air because it bucked the hackneyed conventions of sitcoms and serial television. Episodes don’t follow tidy arcs: they are mélanges of personal narrative, long stand-up bits, surreal subway vignettes – they sometimes feature three short tales, or are dragged out into hour-long flashbacks to his high school days. Chef does not borrow from comedy, flash fiction or dreams, but from the air-tight model of cooking shows like Sandwich King and foodie travel guides like No Reservations: it is sewn together by gratuitous footage of food. It is “food porn”. It’s also a road movie. It is a father-son story with a happy ending, but it is far from conventional. There are many scenes where the Chef goes to the market to find good produce with his son, goes to get a beignet with his son, goes to eat BBQ with his son and drink a beer with John Leguizamo, the ageless sidekick.
This goes on for almost 2 hours – why wasn’t I bored? Well, I love watching food, and I’m not alone. I don’t watch Sandwich King to learn how to make an open-face egg benedict – I like to watch Jeff Mauro jiggle around while drizzling cream on a buttered brioche. It’s fun. Watching Favreau teach his on-screen son how to make Cuban sandwiches is, in Matt’s words, very pleasant. And pleasant does not mean mediocre. Personally, I think fewer movies should strive to be “action-packed” and “laugh-out-loud funny” – they usually suck. Pleasant is a craft. Richard Linklater is the King of Pleasant….
Think about this: I could have just as easily said that Jon Favreau looks like a demure, de-iced Guy Fieri. Louis CK and Guy Fieri as the forefathers of a film. Who wouldn’t want to watch that?
2. Chef doesn’t really have a conflict.
I get it, that does not sound good. But it works. Chef Carl Casper is a likable guy with some supportive friends and creative juices. He has flaws, but he’s not flawed. His major foible is a botched tweet that starts a flame war with a snarky critic – of course, everything goes viral and he loses his job. This happens within the first 30-or-so minutes. The Chef then goes back to his roots, moving to Miami and peddling Cuban sandwiches.
From then on, no major obstacles stand in his way. All of the Chef’s friends are eager to lend a hand, and those that aren’t disappear from his life. His ex-wife gets him his first wheels, and John Leguizamo flies out to find some Hispanics for the tricky task of loading in the deep fryer. No broken hearts, no love triangles, no scheming. ScarlyJo turns out to be nothing more than a pretty hostess the Chef would pork occasionally, and the nasty critic – the closest thing to an antagonist – only returns to offer effusive praise once the foodtruck has made a splash on the foodie circuit. And then he hires Carl and gives him a restaurant.
This optimist bent is a little much and I’m sure it bothered a lot of people: the Chef ends up back with his ex in a beautiful ceremony, undoubtedly overflowing with pork. The genteel pleasantness becomes shameless optimism, which is, yknow, a shame, because what kept the film compelling were the minor hiccups spread out across the journey. That and the pork.
Carl Casper’s son doesn’t quite get the chef thing, so our man has to school him. However, the kid doesn’t start out a total douchebag. He doesn’t whine, responding to his dad’s lame excuses with feigned disinterest like every good 10-year-old should. Their most tumultuous interaction results in a classic “why are you so mean to me??” and a scampering away: seconds later, the Chef approaches and apologizes, explains himself, then they’re back in the truck. There’s no overnight search party through Little Havana or some stupid bullshit like that.
Even though the son grows the most out of anyone, he does not change much – he just gains an appreciation for food and its culture. Who wouldn’t love it, hanging out in a foodtruck all summer? I believe that was Jon Favreau’s intent with such a benign narrative. Most of our problems are small ones, yet they are still entertaining – who needs another clumsy three-act structure? Why can’t the good guy win with nothing but a little ambition and some good pals? What’s wrong with that?
Chef isn’t doing anything super new: for decades independent films have made a point of forgoing the worn-out tropes of Hollywood. Except Jon Favreau’s movie is totally unpretentious. That’s sorta new, I think.
3. Social Media will always be dorky (at least, in movies).
To me, the landmark appearance of the cell phone in contemporary cinema is The Matrix. Motorola logos creep into more than one close-up, yet the clunky gadgets somehow manage to weave themselves neatly into the film’s sleek, dystopian Web 1.0 reality (their satisfying shhhhhhick helps a lot). Later action films likeThe Departed and The Bourne Trilogy utilized cell phones as cool dramatic devices, and writers everywhere continue to revel in the convenient narrative moments they offer.
Twitter or Facebook will never fit that gracefully into the movies. Recent films that deal smartly with the social media phenomenon – The Social Network and Her come to mind – end up lampooning the concept altogether. The latter features lonely, isolated people who only perk up once their technologies assume a human consciousness; the final shot of the former speaks for itself.
In Chef, big Tweet bubbles float above characters heads. The graphics are obtuse, awkward, and trademark powder-blue – what’s less clear is just how stupid-looking Jon Favreau intends them to be. Twitter is the story’s catalyst. It costs Carl Casper his restaurant, but his plucky son’s clever networking fast-tracks the success of the foodtruck. The platform – as most motherly net wisdom portends – is powerful but extremely fickle.
Facebook and Vine make cameos as well: the Chef tears up when he watches a “1-second-a-day” video his son made of their summer together, touring the Deep South. Snapshots of previous scenes flash in quick succession. Their emotional register depends on the tender, Hollywood father-son dynamic; thick irony forms out of our knowledge that many of these moments were littered with small pockets of strife, and most likely boredom.
Our Chef’s subsequent tears are hammed-up and predictable, but raise some funny questions. Which is more sincere, the journey or the gesture? What is most responsible for the Chef’s success, the media or the maduros?
Birdman, another story of public online embarrassment rapidly yielding to massive fame and recognition, raises similar questions. Michael Keaton is an old-school action star who doesn’t quite grasp how the world is changing around him. But really: wasn’t your least favorite part listening to Emma Stone say “you don’t even care about Twitter!!” – I mean, that’s just a really tacky thing to say. With all the amazing creative energy that went into that movie, that’s the best line anyone could come up with. Both Chef and Birdmansuffer from the curse of webspeak’s inherent lameness: saying you have 20,000 followers! or I sent you a Vine, Dad! just does not sound right. Call me old fashioned: the thing is, movies are old fashioned, too.
We are at a real tip of the iceberg moment with cinema at large. Online services have already drastically altered the TV landscape, and feature films are rapidly becoming outmoded. Movies are only now starting to formally address social media, and I sincerely hope we do not witness the emergence of an “old codger left behind by technology” genre. What makes social media interesting (for some, addicting) is the infinite present it offers through constant notification, constant renewal. It is not a filmic object, like a cell phone. Media theorist Doug Rushkoff suggests that the “presentism” of social media has been a boon for serial television like Game of Thrones and House of Cards (who wants to sit around all week for the next episode??) but can easily become “present shock” when it interrupts our ingrained chronological ways of thinking (for example, letting twitter notifications make you late for work). Media at large will evolve in unexpected ways, and the fate of the feature film might be in jeopardy…
That is a 50-page essay in itself. The future is scary. I’ll just say that Chef is fresh but familiar, and invites some exciting possibilities and improvements for the mainstream narrative film. Now, I would love to see Nathan Fielder and Bobby Flay team up for something….
Some other things I wish I had time/energy to write about: the movie The Trip with Steve Coogan (and its new sequel, The Trip to Italy) is an understated but awesome use of “food porn” in a movie. The classic “A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver is a great, relevant read, especially if Birdman got you all psyched on Raymond Carver.