What do you get when you mix Brad Bird’s animated film Ratatouille (2007) and David Frankel’s One Chance (2013)? Well, you get a mess. But surprisingly, it’s a delightful mess. It’s the kind of mess that you want to be a part of. When you suddenly burst into laughter in an elevator crammed full of people because you imagined your boss wearing Nicolas Cage’s face, and the people turn around and stare at you, as if you are in need of an urgent psychiatric evaluation. When you get up at midnight and raid the fridge, searching for those chocolate croissants, even though you know you shouldn’t have them. You know you shouldn’t do it, but it just happens and you can’t stop yourself.
That’s Jon Favreau’s Chef for you. It isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s got many flaws and irritable qualities that make it a perfect candidate for a film that you’d love to hate. But you don’t. Chef has an adorable honesty that comes across on screen in a heartfelt manner, and that’s what makes it so likeable. It may not be a good film, if we try and assess it against a cold and objective set of criteria, but it’s just so likeable: a guilty pleasure that we may scoff at in public but indulge in privately, from time to time.
Actor/director Jon Favreau plays the titular chef Carl Casper, who, after being dissatisfied with his job at a restaurant, and an unfavourable review of one of his dishes by an online food critic, goes on a journey of self-discovery. His goal is to reclaim his lost pride in the only way he knows best – by expressing himself through food and giving to the world the dishes that he loves to cook, but didn’t necessarily get the chance to do so in the restricted environment of his previous job. In an ode to Jerry Maguire (1996), joining him in his quest towards catharsis are the restaurant’s hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson) and fellow chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale). Carl’s efforts to express himself as a chef, whilst trying to connect with his young son and ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), form the crux of the narrative.
Chef has some very strong messages that come across on screen very well. As a critical commentary, exploring the realistic struggles of a chef in his professional domain, it connects instantly with its audience, who have been exposed to unrealistic and exaggerated representations of life in the kitchen of top restaurants through numerous reality television shows. Prima facie, to an outsider, respectable restaurants appear to be all about expression; they value presentation on the plate almost as much as they value the actual content and texture of the dishes on those plates. However, Chef shows us the other side of the coin. In a high pressure environment such as the kitchen, there are more restrictions on expression, rather than the perceived freedom of it. Expressing yourself involves taking risks and experimenting at times, which has the potential to backfire to a significant extent if the dish is disliked by the customers.
There is also an implicit parallel commentary on class structures in the film, told through the medium of food. Riva (Dustin Hoffman), the owner of the restaurant, has a tiff with Carl about the dishes that should be part of the menu. Certain types of dishes have the requisite attributes that qualify it to be part of a respectable restaurant’s menu, whereas some other dishes belong somewhere else, in a food truck, for example. The subtle jab of food being used as a medium to critique prevalent class structures in society was intriguing and undeniably powerful. The thematic implications of food as social commentary is so prevalent in this film that the dishes featured should have been given their own star billing!
In fact, as long as food is used as a medium for social commentary, the film shines. It’s when the focus moves away from that core narrative that the film goes wonky, as if it’s trying desperately to balance on a pair of stilted legs. Chef’s notion of a family with divorced parents is extremely unrealistic, bordering on a Disney-esque “happily ever after” sentiment. There is a young boy involved here. However, the interactions between Inez (Sofia Vergara) and Carl (Jon Favreau) don’t betray a sense of tension. It’s all a bit too amicable, especially when there’s another ex-husband involved – played by Robert Downey Jr playing Robert Downey Jr. Well, Downey plays “Marvin”, but he’s essentially an extension of Downey himself. The narrative arc of Carl trying to reconnect with his family felt like a forced and formulaic sub-plot, even if Carl’s interactions with his son make for some heart-warming sequences.
Jon Favreau lives the character of Carl Casper. Doubling up as a director, Favreau’s vision of Carl’s progression guide the audience through the peaks and troughs of the narrative unfolding on screen. Though Carl is the heart of the film, the majority of the rest of the cast have formulaic and caricatured roles that further the narrative, but lack character depth. Scarlett Johansson resorts to moaning ostensibly with ‘foodgasms’ whenever she tastes any of Carl’s creations. Bobby Cannavale is the best friend you wish you had, while Sofia Vergara is perhaps the nicest ex-wife any man could hope for. Oliver Pratt plays his harsh food critic caricature to a T and what can you say about Robert Downey Jr? He’s just having a lot of fun on screen. In this limited characterisation scope, Amy Sedaris has a delectable role as Inez’s publicist. It was great to see Amy’s brand of humour on the big screen. Now, if only we can get her brother David as well…
Chef does a lot of things right. Implicit social commentary though the medium of food makes it more than just a forgettable comedy. However, actor/director Jon Favreau tries to infuse the social commentary with a dash of forced and formulaic Hollywood-esque ingredients, which don’t really go with the dish. Still, as the film says, experiments are at the heart of self-expression. This dish might taste odd at times, but it does leave a delicious aftertaste.