Thursday, October 2, 2014

"Chef": Vanity Is A Dish Best Not Served At All

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Jon Favreau was a small-time actor who worked his way into directing with the indie film Made, and then into popular discourse with films like Elf and the first two Iron Man films.  Now Favreau has tried to work his way back to his indie roots with Chef, a self-produced, self-starring film that chronicles the life of a master chef as he tries to navigate an overly-controlling boss and an unfair food critic.  I don’t know about you, but it sounds to me like Mr. Favreau has some issues he needs to work out.

The film starts out strong enough, with Favreau’s character facing clear struggles against his restaurant’s establishment and inadvertently starting a flame war on Twitter with the aforementioned critic.  It all feels a bit too much like a heavy-handed metaphor for the life of a director within the constraints of the corporate system, but solid characters make the experience tolerable.  Favreau is surrounded by an eclectic cast of interesting characters, including the zany chefs who work under him, the restaurant’s hostess who functions as his best friend, and Robert Downey Jr. being about as Tony Stark as he can be without infringing on Marvel’s copyright.  They’re all likeable characters with some witty dialogue to round them all out, even if they are all a bit sycophantic to Favreau’s supposed genius.

The film’s primary conflict, though, revolves around Favreau’s son, whom Favreau constantly ignores because of his work.  The two only see each other infrequently due to Favreau’s divorce from the kid’s mother, and when they do see each other, Favreau is either distracted with finding ingredients for his kitchen or doesn’t try very hard to relate with the ten-year-old, mostly because he doesn’t know how.  Eventually, this leads to a heartwarming realization that Favreau can connect with his son by teaching him how to cook, and the two grow close by driving a food truck around the American Southeast and selling to avid crowds of hungry fans.

But this change of pace takes place a mere hour into an almost two-hour film, and the remaining hour is a slog of driving the food truck from location to location and absolutely no conflict takes place.  Favreau takes what starts as a solid narrative film with some annoying self-aggrandizing allegory and turns it into a personal wish-fulfillment fantasy.  He and his son get along great and they have no problems communicating anymore; one of his old chefs just up and quits his job in order to work the food truck with him; even his ex-wife starts to appreciate him again.  Jon Favreau spends the last hour of his return to indie film masturbating into the camera, getting off on just how great his life is now that he’s abandoned the corporately controlled film-making business and is making the movies he wants to make.  As compelling as this may be to him, it’s boring for those who have to put up with his ego.

Chef is by no means a terrible movie, but it is one of the most self-congratulatory and narcissistic I’ve ever seen.  Perhaps I’m a little bit biased based on my knowledge of Favreau’s career, but even taking the film as a whole out of context, it still suffers from narrative pacing issues that completely destroy any pay-off the third act was supposed to provide.  If you want to see Chef, do yourself a favor and turn off the film when Favreau finishes cleaning out the food truck with his kid.  It’ll turn a bad movie into a good one and save about an hour of your life.  If that doesn’t sound appetizing to you, this may be a course you’ll want to skip.

Know of any other narcissistic stabs at film-making?  Let me know in the comments so I can avoid them.

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