Posted by Soylent GreenScreen Podcast
2014, 110 minutes
Written and Directed by John Favreau
Starring John Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vegara and Dustin Hoffman
This is a very funny film that takes a strong position on our culture of criticism and social networking without ever feeling contrived or distancing the audience. This is also perhaps the subtlest meta-film ever made, and I would not be surprised if Favreau was not entirely aware of how much of his own career parallels what we see in Chef.
Anyone familiar with the work of John Favreau will know that the first major role of his career was as the lead actor in Swingers, which is perhaps better known for Vince Vaughn’s scene stealing turn. However, the creative voice behind Swingers was Favreau and his ability to write well rounded and likeable, if flawed, characters. Over the last decade Favreau has become known for directing studio tent pole films such as Iron-Man and Cowboys & Aliens, while these films are not bad films, the creative voice present in Swingers was absent. In many ways those films did feel heartless, they were entertaining but they were lacking in Favreau’s distinct personality.
This is why Chef feels semi-autobiographical but not obviously so. The story is a simple underdog story of a man cut off from his ability to create and to define himself in the world. This is a common and universal story that we often see in sports films, and stories about struggling musicians and artists. In this film the struggling artist is a chef, Carl Casper (John Favreau) once known as being edgy, and making creative and enticing dishes. In the beginning of the film he is under the thumb of his restaurant manager/owner (Dustin Hoffman) and at the mercy of a food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) he deeply wants to impress and yet, loathes. Unfortunately Carl cannot make the food he wants to make, and has to acquiesce to the menu his manager wants. This results in a negative review that goes viral. Carl does not understand Twitter and attempts to send Ramsey a private tweet that Carl does not realise is public until he has thousands of followers.
Chef, therefore feels as if Favreau has found a way to communicate his thoughts and opinions on film critics, studio bosses and trying to maintain his art into this story. Just as Carl loses his highly sought position and resorts to running a food van that he initially perceived as a source of shame, this allowed Carl control and independence in which he could create what he wanted.
For an audience who may only know Favreau for studio films Chef may seem like a step down. This film will not be a box office smash, nor will it get academy award recognition despite an excellent screenplay. However, this feels like one of the most honest and refreshing films to come out of America from an A-list director in a very long time.
A good example of how genuine this film feels is in the scene where Carl tells Ramsey the review hurt. Those moments feel like an open and honest letter to critics in general, who all too often mistake being snarky for criticism. There was pathos in his speech, yet it was also very funny in a way that the audience laughs with the characters and not at them.
A good deal of the humour emerges out of Carl learning social networking. While some films take a negative position on social networking, and attempt to shame the audience while film marketing is dependent on social networking, Chef is an honest portrayal of how Twitter and Facebook integrate into daily life, and are not necessarily a bad thing to have. It is social networking that reinvigorated Carl and tapped him back into his creativity.
Chef is an insightful comedy that hits all the right notes in its message about social networking, critics, the need to create, and the need for basic human connections. Favreau has managed to do this without being contrived, and with enough confidence to speak to his audience without yelling at them or dumbing his film down. Highly recommended.
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