Before attending this year’s SXSW, I had no idea Jon Favreau’s Chef even existed. Given the nature of my job (as I constantly write about films months, and even years before their official release), it’s rare that film goes under my radar. But when that happens (and a film goes oddly without any kind of promotion) it raises some flags. To be blunt, the films with the least promotion usually have something to hide.
But why was Favreau’s Chef so concerned? As SXSW 2014’s big opening film, there was a lot of pressure to deliver, and it sort of did. It’s like a greasy sandwich made with love. You know it’s bad for you, but it’s got a lot of corazón.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of South by Southwest 2014. It is being reposted to coincide with the film’s wide release.]
Director: Jon Favreau
Release Date: May 9, 2014
Jon Favreau stars as Chef Carl Casper, a chef who’s been in the game for several years and wants to change up his routine. When a famous critic (Oliver Platt) gives a poor review of his restaurant, Casper’s outrage at the whole ordeal ends up becoming a major hit on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Now that he’s lost his job, Casper buys a food truck and travels across the United States in order to sell the food he loves as well as reconnect with his estranged son Percy (Emjay Anthony).
Since Favreau wrote the feature, it’s natural to hope for a Swingers-like quality of excellence in the screenplay. His last film, Couples Retreat, failed to do this as it mainly grasps at straws that didn’t exist in the first place. Thankfully, that isn’t completely the case with Chef. There are spots of brilliance within the dialogue as the jokes seem to come from relatable, and realistic sources. For example, when Casper and his Sous Chef (played by John Leguizamo) finally open the food truck, the film opens up and allows the two to play off each other. In fact, those scenes where the food truck travels from place to place (where Casper is coincidentally the happiest) are some of the best sequences of the film. Unfortunately for Chef, it doesn’t all take place there.
While the dialogue is sharp and entertaining for the most part, there are a few wavering lines that miss their mark. When outside of the truck, the film truly falls apart. If the film was meant to be seen as thoroughly disappointing in order to reflect Casper’s negative assertions toward himself, then it completely works. But unfortunately that would mean that about 3/4 of the film was intended to fall flat. The saddest aspect of this is it’s filled with a wonderful cast who really don’t get anything to do. Beyond Leguizamo doing the best he can with his standard “Latino” casting (his gets an “immigracion” joke in there) and Robert Downey Jr making the most of a glorified cameo, everything just sort of meanders about until you get to the haphazard conclusion.
While Casper is trying to figure out his own life as the film tries to set itself up as an “evolving journey” type, the film loses its sense of direction. No characters know exactly what they’re doing or where they’re going, and that’s reflecting on the product itself. But this problem could’ve been easily avoided if the film chose to highlight characters rather than use detrimental amounts of filler (there are so many musical interludes and montages, and one where we stare at Scarlett Johansson for a few minutes for no real reason). But the odd part about all of this is despite the film’s meandering pace, there’s still plenty of heart to chew on.
While Favreau might have lost his touch with the overall frame of the story, it’s hard not to like a film that celebrates food (and Cuban!) culture like this. There are some scenes that are at face value frivolous, that help add to the overall character of the piece. At one point Casper stops in Austin for a few scenes and stops by local restaurants filled with the real people that work there. That attention to detail and care is hard to come by now. But how much of that corazón hits the mark when the rest of the film is bogged down by poor choices?
I’m in a weird stasis with Chef. I loved the humor, shout outs to Latino culture, good song selection, and cast, but I disliked some of the humor, the wonky pace, overplayed montages, and the overall misuse of that cast. As for now, I’ll label it as something you should keep an eye on when it officially releases. It’s certainly a film worth discussing further.
I mean, I haven’t even touched on how much Twitter is mentioned. Hope you like learning how Twitter works!