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'Chef' Is the Jon Favreau Autobiography You Never Asked For

By Vivian Kane | Film Reviews | May 9, 2014 | Comments ()


chef-jon-favreau.jpg

Jon Favreau has had a bit of a bumpy ride, hasn’t he? After a bangarang career launch, complete with the catchiest catchphrases of the 90s, he found his way into the blockbustery people-pleasing business. And he’s taken a lot of shit for that. The thing is, as a writer, director, and actor, Favreau has put out a lot of great work. But for every Swingers, there’s a Couples Retreat. For every Iron Man, there’s a Cowboys and Aliens. Even his best work these days is in the form of huge tentpole films. In watching those movies, you get absolutely no clue of who he is. He may have produced The Avengers, but his indie street cred of the ’90s is long gone.

That loss of artistry — the accusations that Favreau has sold out and gotten soft (figuratively and physically) — is the driving force behind Chef, which premiered this weekend at the South by Southwest Film Festival. The movie is clearly an autobiographical allegory, with Favreau casting himself as his own Mary Sue in the form of Carl Casper. Casper is a Los Angeles chef who was once daring and innovative. Now, late in his career, he still has talent, but it’s being squashed by the owner of his restaurant, played by a possibly drunken or just very bored Dustin Hoffman. After a devastating review from an online critic (Oliver Platt), Casper has his 10-year-old son teach him what Twitter is and then proceeds to have a very public meltdown. He loses his job and his dignity before agreeing to play nanny to his own son on a trip to Florida with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara). While there, he eats a really good sandwich that inspires him to buy a food truck and travel the country serving Cuban food. (It was, like, a really good sandwich, you guys.) On the drive back, lessons are learned, father-son bonding is achieved, and comeuppance is doled out (take that, Oliver Platt). At the end of the movie, the audience is presented with the tidiest little package, all loose ends tied up in a dainty bow.

In an odd parallel of art (let’s be generous with that term here, OK?) imitating life, the film follows the same basic trajectory as Favreau’s career. It starts off strong. The man is working with some Grade A meat. He clearly called in all his Iron Man favors to get a bunch super charming people together and then let them riff for as long as they like. In the best of those scenes, there’s a simplicity that’s engaging and almost reminiscent of Swingers. Getting to know these characters is the best part of the movie, hands down, so for the first 30 minutes or so you may be content to just sit and watch them improvise. John Leguizamo, especially, is surprisingly impressive as Casper’s sous chef. This is probably his most honest and engaging performance in at least a decade.

But, like Favreau’s career choices, the movie quickly gets lost. The pacing is off, and long sequences of food porn and freeways make it hard to connect with anything. Also, Chef is being marketed as a road trip movie, so sitting through the will-he-or-won’t-he of buying the food truck is maddeningly pointless. Robert Downey Jr. shows up for one scene that feels like the cobbled-together Frankenstein’s monster of an improvisation that went off the rails. And the last third of the film builds to a moment that you’re sure will clear your tear ducts and ultimately falls flatter than those pressed Cubanos.

Peppered into this mess, though, are some genuinely charming moments. Emjay Anthony as Favreau’s son is so sharp and cute that I just want to carry him around in my pocket. And John Leguizamo’s Sofia Vergara’s impression is spot on. But it’s not nearly enough to sustain a whole film. Favreau has said in interviews that this movie came to him as a whole in a flash of inspiration and he wrote it quickly. That perspective is meant to make us understand how important the film is to him, that he just needed to tell this story. But all it actually does is stand to explain the shallowness of the film. Much of what we see feels like placeholders. The overt monologuing and in-your-face social media use feels like it was just saving room until Favreau was ready to write the real scene — you know, something better, funnier, maybe with some nuance. Unfortunately, he seems to have never gotten to his second draft, and what we’re left with is a half-baked, gooey saccharine mess.

Vivian Kane will eat pretty much anything out of a truck.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Jae

    A middle-aged male self-reinvention fantasy with no obstacles whatsoever (he gets the truck and from then on it's just AWESOME) and all the rewards to our cypher hero, with sexism (all that the only two female characters in the movie are is supportife of our wonderful-beautiful-artiste protagonist.. or, wait also, like, totally hot) sprinkled on top - what's not to like?

  • jollies

    I disagree. This is a good movie. If it had presented more conflict and had avoided the deus ex machina ending it could have been a great movie. But, nonetheless, it is still a good movie.

  • maddermonk

    The first 2 seasons of "Chef", the British series with Lenny Henry was the best kitchen based sitcom, then "Kitchen Confidential", then nothing.

  • ed newman

    If you want food porn check out Big Night, not this.

  • Mrs. Julien

    YOU HAVE TO BITE YOUR TEETH INTO THE ASS OF LIFE!

  • AvaLehra

    A total aside -- anyone remember (or watched) that show starring Bradley Cooper based on Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential?

  • emmalita

    I watched it! And I liked it. I thought it had potential to be great. Have you seen the British show Whites? It was on Netflix streaming and Hulu. I'm not sure if it's still there.

  • What an odd curiosity.

  • DarcyMcCarbomb

    The man gave us the eternal gift of "Elf;" he can do whatever he wants.

  • BlackRabbit

    What's this "sold out" thing? Did he make a good movie people enjoyed? Yes. Did he get paid a lot of money? Yes. Why is that a negative? if you (not you the article writer) want to "suffer for your art" that's fine, but taking shots at someone else smacks of sour grapes because you didn't get that break or want to do something "important."

  • BWeaves

    Emjay? Is that a real name?

    Also, I'm a vegetarian living in Florida, and Cuban sandwiches from a food truck are fantastic. Who knew that ham, pork, mustard, butter and pickles on a Cuban roll could taste so fantastic, and so, um, not Kosher? Don't tell my Mom, ok?

  • Bert_McGurt

    I went to university with a hippie Mennonite dude named Ajay, so Emjay seems perfectly plausible to me.

  • Bob Genghis Khan

    Did Favreau stand you up at Prom or something? What's with the bias?

  • Mrs. Julien

    Casting Sophia Vergara as one's wife makes a vanity project such as this one seem almost meta, no?

  • freetickles

    Cowboys and Aliens was awesome.... terrible but awesome.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Daniel Craig wore chaps. What more could people possibly want? None. None more.

  • Berry

    You have used the word "chaps" without the redundant non-word "assless"! You win! Any second now, you will notice a beam of light descending on you from the heavens, to the celestial harmonies of angels singing Gloria.

  • meh

    I read this, and all I could think of were a bunch of sassy angels with 80's hair singing "Gloria....I think they got your number...I think they got the alias....you been living under."

  • Uriah_Creep

    You're making me feel really bad about that Orphan Black Felix comment I made a while ago, you know that?

  • Berry

    I am sorry. You had to be sacrificed for the greater good, which is the battle against wide-spread misuse of words. Next up: deconstruction and karma!

    Edit I'm a terrible snob.

  • Uriah_Creep

    It's OK, Berry, I'm a bit of a grammar nazi myself, so my use of the "assless chap" expression was chapping my own ass.

  • Berry

    Chapped ass is THE WORST.

  • Mrs. Julien

    This is all very exciting.

  • Bert_McGurt

    I have to ask - were the chaps black?

  • Mrs. Julien

    And that is why I love you.

  • Bert_McGurt

    It's quite mutual my dear.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I think it would've been greatly improved if Harrison Ford had insisted on wearing his earring.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I will also eat pretty much anything out of a truck. Especially stolen Entenmann's.

    If only Chef had kickstartered his restaurant, so that he could maintain full editorial control of it...alas.

    It sounds like this is the movie equivalent of that email you type in an emotional response and click "send" when you should actually save it and reread it two days later when you're sober.

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