by JULIA CLARKE
dir. Jon Favreau
The last film I saw alone was American Hustle, and I'm still recovering from that requisite tsunami of depression. I saw Chef because I doubted it would have the same effect, and also Swingers has forever given me a soft spot for Jon Favreau. A friend once described him as "the moldy inside of a ripe English muffin," but that friend doesn't understand how a lady feels when a man wearing a tank top struggles to leave a voicemail. I maintain he's adorbs.
Contrary to what the trailers suggest, Chef is less a "the higher they rise, the harder they fall" story so much as a tale about someone who makes hand-squeezed, chili-infused artisan lemonade out of lemons, with the coaxing of his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara). That coaxing was relentless and weirdly good-hearted, considering their divorce.
Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is head chef at an upscale Los Angeles restaurant where randomly Scarlett Johanasson is the hostess. She plays a hipster named Molly who sort of has a thing for him, although after sharing a joint they say "we told each other we wouldn't do this," and just like that, their relationship is drier than the cornstarch Carl and his son pour on their male parts on a particularly humid evening.
Once an inventive, passionate craftsman, Carl is now a cook forced by restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) to put out what the regular crowd expects: some sort of caviar thing in an eggshell, a blah Italian entree, and a chocolate lava cake.
On the day of a big critique from renowned critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), Carl struts into the kitchen with heirloom tomatoes, an enormous pig carcass, and purple carrots. But Riva demands that he "play the hits" and stick to the usual menu, which, of course, makes Ramsey Michel roll his eyes and write a heinous review. He pans Carl's boring cooking, but perhaps more cuttingly, he says that Carl's weight gain is decidedly due to obligatory eating of what guests send back to the kitchen.
Carl is outraged and has an in-restaurant meltdown captured by another patron's iPhone and quickly posted to YouTube. Even though there is no such thing as bad press, Carl's services are no longer needed, and after a brief battle with pride, he does what his ex-wife suggests: opens a food truck in Miami.
With nothing else to lose (people don't want to hire him after his YouTube performance), he follows her advice, and brings along his cute son Percy (Emjay Anthony), who proves amazingly adept at social media outreach. A former coworker Martin (John Leguizamo) joins in at the last second, and the three of them drive from Florida to LA, stopping in cool cities like Austin and NOLA to serve up Cuban sandwiches and whatever other variations on that theme Carl feels like because now he's finally cooking what he loves.
The film has, given its food-centric nature, the expected shots of melty grilled cheese, pureed peppers, simmering green onions, tender pork. In one scene, Carl makes ScarJo some pasta instead of hooking up with her because they told each other they wouldn't. The camera closes in on some onions and spices sauteeing in a wok, and then Carl transfers the most glistening pasta in the world – did he use a gallon of oil? it's so shiny I think he can see his face reflected in it! – into the wok concoction. He twists it together artistically before plating it and handing it to her. When she takes her first bite, her eyes roll back in a way that reminded me of Paula Deen's expression when she bites into a stick of butter.
In a scene in Texas, Carl, Martin and Percy stop at a hole-in-the wall BBQ place and cut into a piece of meat that has been slowly cooking overnight. It looks almost charred, but when the knife slices through it, the inside is visibly perfect, even to my vegetarian eyes. Someone in the theater audibly groaned in what can only be described as a sexual way.
As a kale lover, most of the featured food did nothing for me. Most strange, though, was that the food Carl made wasn't nearly as innovative as the film implied he is. Carl's reputation before becoming head chef at the restaurant is that he's against the grain, menu-wise. As someone who has watched at least four episodes of Top Chef, a Cuban sandwich isn't wildly unique. Where you might expect some sort of foamy lecithin concoction atop seared scallops with a sprig of, I don't know, arugula, Carl presents basic Cuban sandwiches and fried plantains. That was actually what was to some heartfelt and others cheesy about it - he begins cooking not only what he wants to cook, but what reminds him of his romance with Inez, and in the process, he rebuilds his relationship with his son. "I get to touch people's lives with what I do," he says meaningfully to Percy. "And I love it. And I want to share this with you."
Performances were mediocre at best and racist at worst (isn't Sofia Vergara Colombian? Why was she parading as Cuban?), although Carl's son Percy was earnest in a believable and childlike way. Tweets appeared on the screen in the same way texts do in House of Cards, rendering social media a character in itself. It was also possibly too long, but maybe that's because there are only so many extreme close-ups of meat slabs I can stomach.
There were also some unanswered questions. I don't know why Inez needed a publicist, for instance, or why her house was so enormous, and she also had another ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr.!?) whose personality – erratic, enigmatic, eccentric – held little appeal. It seemed that her relationship with him was only a ploy for romcom friction between Carl and Inez, the two you're supposed to want to re-couple. I found myself wanting to hate watch a movie about how Robert Downey Jr. and Sofia Vergara's relationship got going and perhaps more interestingly, how it dissolved.
But all of that is neither here nor there in the grand scheme of it. What matters is that a man realizes simplicity and staying true to himself and his ideals will feed millions and bring broken families back together.
Julia Clarke is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She last wrote in these pages about a type.
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