I had little reason to be excited to see Chef. I’m only familiar with the movie’s leading man, director, and writer Jon Favreau from his work on and in the first two Iron Man movies. And save for Ratatouille and reruns of Chopped, I have very little interest (and even less prowess) in anything to do with the culinary arts.
Also, come on — why call your movie Chef? You really can’t ask for a more generic title, and at the start it seemed as though the movie itself would be just as bland. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a gourmet chef at a restaurant owned by Dustin Hoffman, who discourages Casper from adding anything creatively daring to his menu. At the same time, Casper is preparing to serve a popular food critic, which he has to juggle with having to spend time with his ten-year old son.
I was prepared for the rest of the movie to continue along the same familiar narrative and thematic lines that I’ve seen over and over again, albeit helped along by witty dialogue from a committed cast and wonderful — at times mouthwatering — shots of food. Of course he’ll have to choose between his work and his son, I thought. And he’ll have to prove how important creativity is, right? I was even waiting for the moments where the movie would start lazily comparing its characters to certain foods for easy symbolism.
But what I wasn’t expecting was that the film very quickly evolves into something else entirely, simultaneously explaining why it must have been a nightmare trying to come up with a way to name and market it. To my utter surprise, Chef isn’t really a movie about cooking at all — that’s just the exterior. What the movie is really about is… social media.
See, after he inevitably receives a bad review from Oliver Platt’s snobby food blogger, the technologically-illiterate Casper has his son help him set up a Twitter account so he can read all the hate he’s getting. Of course, not understanding how the internet works, Casper ends up getting into a Twitter war with the critic and eventually goes viral.
I’ve been waiting for a movie that would really try to explore the psychology — and hilarity — of our social media obsession in a way that felt natural and necessary. A few years back I would groan every time a movie would mention facebook or twitter, as it was pretty much always used in a weak attempt to make the movie feel “with the times”.
This integration has at least gotten more clever; so far this year, I’ve seen two other films (Non-Stop and Neighbors) that have utilized text messaging/video chat in popup graphics on screen. However, in both films they were more distracting than anything else, just slick-looking gimmicks.
The only two films that have mounted honest-to-god explorations of our relationship with the always-connected and ever-expanding technological world, The Social Network and Her, only did so through operatic melodrama and futuristic allegory, respectively.
Never before had I seen a movie that felt utterly grounded in reality…until Chef, which is now perhaps the most realistic and earnest movie to deal with social media in a way that is both entertaining and sophisticated. Casper’s two main challenges — his business and bonding with his son, are both deeply transformed by apps and tweets and it’s an ingenious through-line that I would happily take over forced food puns any day.
The dialogue is especially praise-worthy, integrating technology and social media lingo into conversation as you would hear every day now, not for the sake of trying to sound hip but for real thematic reasons. When talking to his son, whom he is out of touch with, he asks him where he hears bad language. When his son says ‘youtube’, Casper’s reply is “there’s bad language on youtube?” Lines like these say so much about both Casper’s disconnect between him and his son and his growing isolation from a rapidly-changing world, while also asking audiences to reflect on their own relationships with both the real people in their lives and with their smartphones.
The movie feels deeply personal, as if Favreau was grappling with all of these themes as he was writing about them. And of course, there are definite connections between Casper’s choice between playing it safe or being daring with his cooking and Favreau’s own film work. After all, the man was on top of the world following the launch of the first Iron Man and consequently the entire Marvel cinematic universe, but faced harsh criticism for Iron Man 2, and even worse criticism for his next movie, notorious flop Cowboys & Aliens.
Favreau’s abrupt return to small-scale indie filmmaking after a run in Hollywood is mirrored in the film’s story. After the aforementioned internet meltdown, Casper leaves his restaurant to start over with a fresh venture, his son in tow. This shift is off-putting from a traditional narrative perspective, but more unfortunate is that when it happens, the heavy focus on social media subsides (until being revived towards the end) and is instead replaced by cliched family bonding moments with little stakes.
But somehow Favreau still makes the second half well worth it since he does such a good job getting audiences invested in the characters. It definitely doesn’t hurt that he has the help of a truly amazing cast including John Leguizamo and Sofia Vergara, not to mention smaller parts from Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, Platt, Hoffman, and even old Iron Man buddy Robert Downey Jr. in a one-scene cameo. But the real show-stealer is young Emjay Anthony as Casper’s son Percy. It’s a super important role that I assume most child actors couldn’t pull off, but Anthony is charming, funny, and brings real emotion to the role. Expect to see more of him in the future.
Only at the very end does Favreau drop the ball, with a conclusion that is sudden, sugary, and pretty much unbelievable. But by that point I was already too impressed by the movie to really care. It’s hilarious, heartfelt, well-acted and the characters are just so damn likable. Who would of thought that a movie called Chef would be the most realistic portrayal and exploration of social media?
From a thematic standpoint, which at its deepest core is about attempting to find something genuine in a world that feels increasingly inauthentic, the movie’s existence even feels necessary in 2014. It’s name may be flavorless (sorry, one food pun is required), but make no mistake: Chef is one of the best movies to come out so far this year.
Score: 4 out of 5