One of the secrets of good fiction, in any medium, is that there’s room for a story to mean more than it literally means. Artists, be they writers, musicians, directors, or hobos who scrawl cartoons on public bathroom walls in fecal matter, can imbue their work with subtext and hidden meaning, sometimes without even knowing it. It often feels like mainstream (or at least Hollywood) films have forgotten this. Look, I love Pacific Rim as much as any other rabid kaiju fanboy, but if we’re being honest, it’s really not about anything -other- than massive exercises in government overspending wrestling with Guillermo Del Toro’s sketchbook. And that’s ok. But when a film comes along that has a bit more going on beneath the hood, something deeply personal to the person making it, that’s pretty ok too.
Jon Favreau’s Chef is one of these, an intensely personal movie that uses metaphor and subtext to voice the director’s own frustrations with, well, being a director itself. At least that’s the way I read it. One of the other things about good fiction meaning more than it literally means is that your interpretation of it can be completely and utterly off base from what was intended.
Favreau plays director Jon Favreau – I mean Carl Casper, a well-regarded head chef at a high-profile movie studio – I mean restaurant. When the demanding studio head – I mean owner demands that Chef stick to his usual style – I mean menu, Casper feels stifled under the creative restrictions placed on him. Things get worse when an influential film critic – I mean restaurant critic, blasts Casper menu in a review. This prompts Casper to have what us modern computer-age folks refer to as a Twitter Meltdown and an angry confrontation with the critic, after which Casper loses his job. But rather than sink into depression (for too long anyway) Casper bounces back and shoots an indie movie – I mean buys a food truck and goes across country, along the way trying to heal his broken relationship with his son – I mean…no, wait no that one’s not really a metaphor for anything.
Look, I know I’m being a facetious asshole here, but it really does seem pretty obvious that Chef is really about Favreau’s feelings about working under a creatively stifling environment and seeing his work blasted by critics despite putting his all into his projects. It’s about the frustration of having one’s creative output either suppressed or shat upon, oftentimes both. And as much as I poke fun about the obviousness of the metaphor, I respect the hell out of Favreau for the fact that he’s managed to walk the delicate tightrope between airing what has to be some long pent-up frustrations about the very industry he’s working in, and making it a seriously entertaining film at the same time. Chef works, first and foremost, precisely because it feels so personal, but the fact that it never feels like a 90 minute bitch-session carries it the rest of the way.
But as much as I commend Favreau for putting as much of himself into Chef as he did, I can’t call the movie perfect. As many have pointed out, the female characters, such as they are, are more two-dimensional and uninteresting than female characters should be by this point. Yes, they aren’t the focus of the film, but they fall into the same old expected, arbitrary roles that I think we all should have moved past by now. Sofia Vergara is the nagging, worrying ex-wife, the professional wet blanket who’s subtly chastised for having had sexual relations with anyone other than our hero. Scarlett Johansson, during an otherwise fantastic period in her career, gets relegated to “the girlfriend” role, just another piece of Casper’s “good life” that gets left behind when he leaves the restaurant to never be seen or spoken of again.
The editing also suffers from more inconsistency than a poorly cooked burger, being occasionally great (one fantastic sequence compresses Fravreau’s unsuccessful day out with his son into an Edgar Wright-esque micro-montage) but more often leading to scenes ending on the wrong note, or dragging on too long. The film has a serious mad-on for montage, the kind that usually warrants a thick metal fence and some trained dogs. Cooking montages are scattered throughout the movie, but more often than not they feel unnecessary and uninteresting. While some of Chef’s beloved montages are there to advance the plot and tell us about the current state of the characters, just as many seem like food porn set to the film’s crowded, up-tempo Salsa soundtrack.
But for once, I don’t want to focus on the negative, as much as it facilitates crude metaphors involving bodily functions and obscure cultural references. There’s a lot in Chef that I seriously enjoyed. The back and forth between Favreau and John Leguizamo as his best friend/sous-chef feels genuine and never forced. And as much as I was preparing myself for Oliver Pratt’s food critic Ramsey Michel to be yet another smug, evil critic who maliciously opposed the hero’s creative works, the film veers away from that stereotype at the last second. And yes, I know that’s a very specific and person reason to like a film, but I’m really getting tired of this occasional perception of critics as the enemy of all creativity and expression.
It’s easy -too easy- to rag on big budget, design by committee blockbusters like Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Star Trek Into Darkness, films that seem to have as much creative expression and personal subtext in them as a Big Mac. Chef is the opposite, about as personal an expression of the feelings and experiences of the mind behind it as you can get. Because of this, it’s almost impossible not to look past it’s flaws. A while Chef does have flaws, its abundance of heart and personality makes up for it, and then some.