Jon Favreau’s Anti-Popcorn Project ‘Chef’ Still Mild

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Average: 5 (1 vote) Oscarman rating: 2.5/5.0
Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – By the time of his 2011 box office blitzkrieg otherwise known as “Cowboys & Aliens,” the product that indie director-turned-Hollywood habitue Jon Favreau had been hocking as a “popcorn salesman” had gone stale – to use a showbiz term from Nicholas Ray’s” In A Lonely Place.” Packing up his CGI tools and baring himself as vulnerable to criticism for making some bad movies, Favreau now acts, writes, and directs in a journey back to the passion of creating for others.

With his latest film “Chef,” a very different direction from his recent action fantasies, Favreau seeks to provide the same audiences another stimulation - that of delicious food, and the rare sense of no-stakes relaxation at the multiplex. But, “Chef” does find complications as a vanity vehicle as his permeable character that doesn’t fully earn our adoration as a reinvented underdog, no matter how delicious his food looks.

Perhaps one should be lighter with the usage of the word “blitzkrieg” when talking about said unsuccessful genre Frankenstein, as its failure has created a very specific response from Favreau, re: the very existence of “Chef.” Instead of playing a director who becomes associated with formulaic crowd-pleasing films, Favreau plays a tatted-up cook that once ascended with integrity, but then lost his way in his food artistry because every night he dishes “the hits.” Though this satiates his restaurant’s manager (Dustin Hoffman in a bizarre cameo) it has effects on his self-esteem, especially when he gets a harsh (and unprofessionally personal) review from a famous food critic (played by Oliver Platt) who rejects his same old things.

Carl responds to the critic via his newly-created Twitter account, but his misunderstanding of a private message vs. a public post creates a social media spectacle, as the critic and artiste fight back and forth. When he embarrasses himself at a second attempt to prove the critic of his true cooking potential, Carl takes a trip with his son (Emjay Anthony) and separated wife (Sofia Vergara) to Florida, which begins a point of reinvention. He gets a molding down food truck, and with the help of his son and cook friend (played by John Leguizamo), they operate a running Cuban sandwich machine that drives across the country bringing Favreau’s inner “Don’t Worry Be Happy” to various locations.

Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau
Emjay Anthony and Jon Favreau in ‘Chef’
Photo credit: Open Road Films

The most definitive feature of Favreau’s tale of reinvention is indeed his distaste for conflict. This is a road movie that fully coasts; it starts up slow, and then when it reaches its second half, achieves full cruise control. “Chef” averts problems in a way that is different from any type of popular movie, not just his previous blockbusters. He has no interest in the type of dramatic folly that could still have such a place in this story. There’s no big competition at the end, or even corporation trying to stop him. There isn’t even a question of the food truck being put in danger, in regards to its cross-country expedition, or the amount of usable food ready to be cooked.

Life may be like “Chef” more than other films, but its lack of immediacy provides a polarizing pacing. Is this storytelling ease refreshing, in that it doesn’t even have audiences worrying about the stress of what could be an easily contrived arc? Or is the film so “chill bro” that it leaves viewers slumped in their chairs, with nothing to do but watch food being made, while a hurt filmmaker tries to reinvent himself, learning to play new hits?

Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara
Photo credit: Open Road Films

The complete transparency of Favreau within “Chef,” whether in front of or behind the camera, provides him ironically with the loudness that he intentionally tried to eschew; he is his own “Iron Man”-esque aesthetic assault, or excerpts of dialogue from the cacophonous film “The Break-Up.” No, that is not a reference to his physical appearance (as he is clear to mention in ”Chef”), but the direct monologue he has with his audience for the film’s duration. He expresses these things very clearly; that he (and others) worked hard, that it is difficult to take criticism of a movie even you couldn’t save (“You sh*t on my sh*t!” he exclaims at Platt’s critic), but ultimately about what keeps bringing him back to the idea of filmmaking, of which he is set to make a “Magic Kingdom” film in the near future (“I get to touch people’s lives with what I do.”)

Based around Favreau, “Chef” is all about him improving - being a better father, a better food artist, a better husband, but not so much a better storyteller. Such is the case even when he is handling life with an intentionally less spectacular touch.

“Chef” opens everywhere on May 16th. Featuring Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Robert Downey Jr., Oliver Platt, Scarlett Johansson, and Dustin Hoffman. Written and directed by Jon Favreau. Rated “R” editor and staff writer Nick Allen

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