Ahoy, squirts! Quint here, typing while I sit in decades of bum piss and collegiate vomit on 6th St. The opening night film of SXSW has ended and I decided to get a jump on my review before the midnight rolls.
There aren't going to be many better screenings for Chef than the one that just ended. Not only is Austin a big movie town it's a huge foodie town, so when it became apparent that Jon Favreau was using food porn to tell his extremely personal story of artistic stagnation the audience was so on board. You know you're in a friendly audience when the row behind you makes orgasm sounds when Franklin brisket appears on screen.
The story of a frustrated chef falling into a creative rut working under a restaurant owner who just wants him to “play his hits” every day, every week, every year is a creative, but obvious parallel to Favreau's own ups and downs as a filmmaker. That's a good thing. Favreau has always been a filmmaker that has given it his all, even in something like Cowboys &. Aliens. If you go back and watch that movie, you'll see he directed the hell out of it. It's gorgeous, cinematic, but just can't overcome a goofy script. The tone is trapped between embracing the crazy concept and trying to do the “for serious” version of that, but I don't see that as Favreau's fault.
Iron Man, Made, Zathura and Elf all feel like Favreau. He's always worn his heart on his sleeve as a filmmaker, which makes his portrayal of Chef Carl Casper that much more poignant. Carl views himself as an artist, someone who was embraced early in his career as being a visionary and then taken some lumps. He's erred on the side of being safe for too long and that puts everything in jeopardy for him when a particularly disappointed food critic takes him to task and he overreacts spectacularly.
The film is about an artist finding his artistic spark again. Culinary or cinema arts, it doesn't matter, it's all about the same thing and once again gets Favreau back in the lower budget character-driven indie world where he has a chance to lay his soul bare in a funny, sweet and charming film.
His script for Swingers was that for an early 20-something man and Chef is the same vibe, but for a man in his middle age. He's not a guy trying to get laid, he's a guy who has let his passion for his job diminish his personal life. Carl is divorced and although he loves his 10 year old son, he has taken a backseat to Carl's work.
The first half of the film focuses on destroying Carl's reality and him realizing he worked so hard to live a dream that doesn't at all resemble the one he was pursuing as a young, determined man. The second half has him reigniting that spark while making things right with his son.
The second half plays out like a road trip movie (a particular favorite subgenre of mine) as Carl starts a food truck in Miami and has to drive it back to LA, stopping at all the places he promised to one day take his kid along the way, including my humble little town of Austin.
This is where the movie really soared for me. It's just Favreau, John Leguizamo and young Emjay Anthony riffing on each other, bonding and making crazy amazing looking food.
Chef is a very simple story plot-wise, but that's good because that frees it up to follow interesting characters played by interesting actors finding the emotional truth at the core of the movie. It's uplifting in a way because it is all about clearing away the bullshit and just loving what you're doing, fueling your passion once again.
A lot of great actors come and play here, most of them with ties to Favreau like Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. It's these guys that bring a little welcome starpower and energy, but the movie really does rest on the shoulders of Favreau, Leguizamo and Anthony. Dustin Hoffman has some great moments as Favreau's film exec-like boss, Bobby Cannavale is hilarious, as usual, Sofia Vergara plays Carl's ex in a way that keeps her from being just the demanding and spiteful ex-wife character you've seen a hundred times over and Oliver Platt is always, always, always a welcome face to light up the screen.
Chef is a feel good movie, a low budget, R-rated dramatic comedy about a dad, a son and a true friend going on a little adventure and bringing a few hundred new friends with them. It's a little loose on the scripting, which hurts it at times (they say how big a deal the food critic is at least 8 times in the first 20 minutes), but mostly helps it feel natural, capturing the very best and real performances and reactions between father and son. That's the key to this movie working and Favreau very smartly built the second half on that skeleton.
Oh, and the food porn. The delicious, scrumptious food porn... Watching an overweight dude cook a fancy grilled cheese sandwich were triggering things in my brain that shouldn't have been triggered. No shit, there's a sex scene in the movie that consists solely of one character watching another character cook pasta and it's the most erotic foreplay I've seen in a long, long time.
I really dug this one and it makes me happy that films like this are being made again. The indie world has veered pretty drastically away from the days of Swingers and Spanking the Monkey and that kind of film, but Chef is a welcome return to form for the indie drama scene.
So far SXSW is off to a good start. I began this review in full view of the parade of miscreants on Sixth and end it post-Midnight movie sitting comfortably at home. I'd talk more, but I gotta get some sleep 'cause this is just day one. The real craziness has just begun!