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.