Skip to main content

Shut up and taste this, amuse-douche.

Chef
(2014)

It’s quite understandable that reviewers have highlighted the perceived autobiographical elements of Jon Favreau’s Chef, the story of a successful man in his chosen field brought low by the critics. After rosy responses to Zathura , Elf and Iron Man, Favrea’s lustre was tarnished by back-to-back underwhelmers Iron Man II and Cowboys and Aliens. Following the line of thought that his Chef character in is commentary and payback for this doesn’t really follow, however, not unless Favreau wants us to believe those who brought him low are a sobering force of good. Whatever his intentions, the retreat into a small personal movie has done Favs the world of good; it’s his best picture since he made Marvel Studios what it is by casting Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark.


Favreau wrote, starred and directed, so he’s consciously setting his dish up to be wolfed down or regurgitated across the sidewalk. He plays Carl Casper, a Miami-born chef at a Riva’s (Dustin Hoffman) L.A. restaurant. When renowned critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt, vying with Favs for girth cred) slates Carl’s menu (“His dramatic weight gain can only be explained by the fact that he must be eating al the food sent back to the kitchen”), reserving particular venom for his lava cake, Carl takes to Twitter (“You wouldn’t know a good meal if it sat on your face”) and challenges Carl to a second round.


Riva refuses to let Carl decide the menu, and the chef walks out. This leads to a broadcast meltdown as Carl confronts Ramsey (“It hurts”).  Now without a job, Carl is persuaded by his ex-wife to buy a food truck. Aided and abetted by the son he has neglected and his devoted sous chef, Carl takes a road trip from Miami back to L.A. selling the Cuban cuisine he loves as he goes.


This is a fantasyland of a guy who has a whole lot anyway getting even more when he subtly course redirects. All he needs is a bit of cajoling from a wise ex who knows anyway that he wont be happy until he’s his own boss (and comes back to her with his tail between his legs). When Carl takes delivery the dilapidated truck there’s a mere modicum of spit and polish before it’s miraculously spick and span and spruced and painted. 


There’s very little conflict here; I was waiting for the son to get rushed to ER after burning himself on a hotplate, and Carl getting blamed by the ex, but it never happened. Favreau also really takes his time (a trim 90 minutes would probably have been the ideal). The subplot with his neglected son is on the clumsy side (that’s not Emjay Anthony’d fault), alternatively having Casper act the jerk or engage in cloying reconnection.


If the unlikelihood of Casper being surrounded by a bevy of beauties looks like wish fulfillment on an alarming scale, Favs at least presents it like he’s in on the joke. The succession of digs about Carl’s dramatic weight gain makes it marginally more feasible he might once have attracted Sofia Vergara, and it’s quite clear the only way to hostess Scarlett Johansson’s heart is through her stomach. Favreau shoots Molly’s anticipation of Casper’s dish like a response foreplay, followed by her raptures as she digs in.  Generally, Favreau does a fine job making the food look delicious. One might make cracks about how obvious it is that he likes his chow, but it really does come across on screen.


Much has been commented, not so glowingly, of Chef being built on Twitter, but it works pretty well, as device for spinning the plot and building up Favreau’s business. It even extends to building Carl’s relationship with his tech-savvy son.


As for Favs calling favours from his pals, mostly this pays off. ScarJo is hardly in it really, and the female characters suffer slightly as unimpeachable forces who guide Carl back to his calling, but she’s far more alive and present here than in any number of Black Widow outings. Vergara Inez is too good to be true, but she’s so likable the character gets a free pass. Amy Sedaris is very funny as the publicist who wants to get Carl on Hell’s Kitchen.


Then there’s John Leguizamo as faithful Martin. I don’t know if he’s got new management, but the last couple of times I’ve seen him on screen Leguizamo’s been playing likeable sorts. It comes as a bit of a shock after all those years of him embodying weasels. He’s a good fun, as is Bobby Carnavale. Dustin Hoffman’s great too (he’s really not looking like he’s nodding towards 80) delivering one of his increasingly finely chosen cameos. 


Downey Jr, as another of Inez’ ex-husbands, is okay, but he’s just showing up, coasting on the charisma (Will Smith did similarly recently, to more laughable effect, in Winter’s Tale). Platt’s always dependable, but even he struggles with the syrupy pixie dust of the final scenes (not only does Ramsey make up with Carl, but he puts his own money into a joint business venture!)


Interpreting the self-styled Hollywood metaphor, Hoffman becomes the disinterested studio boss, content with the bottom line and blanching at any prospect of “artsy shit”. Of course, Favreau has never made artsy shit and, as marginally indie as Chef is, there’s not really much danger of it being seen that way. But Carl’s excursion into a food van is Favs making this movie, basically. The critic finances his next venture is… what, crowdsourcing? The analogy drops out a bit there.


It also drops out in terms of the complaints over being criticised (we even get it rehearsed again at the end; “It hurts people like me”). It’s implicit that if Ramsey hadn’t stuck the boot in then Carl wouldn’t have regrouped and come out a better person. Perhaps Favs is just too nice a guy not to see all sides. Certainly, this doesn’t leave a bad taste in the way Shyamalan’s bite back in Lady in the Water does; there’s a sense of humour mixed with the grandstanding and saccharine denouement.   


Whatever Chef’s faults, you can tell Favs feels it, connects with it, which helps hugely. There’s no attack of indigestion here, just a mild bloaty feeling. And now, having got this out of his system, Favreau has forsaken the indie food truck and returned to the big studio eatery, tempting fate with one of the duelling Jungle Books. He may be putting his heart and soul into the picture, but is it personal, and meaningful? Will Shere Khan hurt people like him? 

Yes, the top-lining poster is shockingly real.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delightsmay well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vie…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …