A Tasty Concept that Mirrors Its Own Plot a Little Too Much
Review by Ken Burke Chef
An L.A. chef gets a bad review from a notorious critic which leads to him being fired, reinventing himself as a unique food truck presence, then regrouping with his family.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
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|Sixto Rodriguez, early 1970s|
I realize that a lot’s been happening at your local mainstream and art house movie theaters since I posted last week (Neighbors, May 21, 2014) but I’m not going to attempt to catch up on all of it now because while I’ve seen X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) I’m going to wait until next week to say anything about it (not that the lack of my immediate comments will have any impact on the massive worldwide box-office-take of this latest superhero movie) when I can pair it with another offering from the Fantasy genre, also primed for a successful opening weekend, Disney’s Maleficent (Robert Stromberg) starring Angelina Jolie; plus, my marvelous wife, Nina, and I are in the middle of packing more music concerts into our lives in this present week than we have in the last couple of years so that’s been taking some time and attention as well (along with car, cat, blood pressure, and lingering virus concerns—most of which now seem to be stabilized again), cutting down on our time for cinematic outings (along with attention to my beloved Oakland Athletics trying to maintain their American League Western Division first-place-standing against fierce battles from the best of the East—Toronto Blue Jays—and the Central—Detroit Tigers) so there’s lots to keep up with during these busy-almost-truly-summer-days. As for those musical moments, while we’re actively looking forward to Barry Gibb’s Bee Gees tribute to his late brothers and James Taylor’s ongoing successful career, I’d most like to promote (with no compensation of any kind to me, just a fan’s sincere praise) Sixto Rodriquez who’s just finished 2 marvelous nights in San Francisco and is now headed to L.A. for a couple of shows this weekend (I don’t know of any scheduled after that but you can keep up with him at his official website). If you don’t know his music yet, he was featured in the Oscar-winning Documentary Feature Searching for Sugarman (Malik Bendielloul, 2012; sadly, this Swedish director died on May 13, 2014 as the result of depression-fueled-suicide) which you can learn more about here if you wish, exploring how the obscurity of this Detroit-born-Hispanic-folk-singer/social-commentator in his home country was countered by his huge popularity in South Africa so when he was found to still be right where he started out his fame quickly picked up (while I mean not to deny him rightful royalty fees—we bought both of his early albums—you can hear what made him famous on Cold Fact, 1970, and Coming from Reality, 1971). So, now that the no-payola-plugs are out of the way, let’s move on to what I have seen lately at the cinema and do want to write about, Jon Favraeu’s Chef, in which he stars (he’s got a long acting resumé, with roles most recently in The Wolf of Wall Street [Martin Scorsese, 2013; review in our January 4, 2014 posting] and Iron Man 3 [Shane Black, 2013; review in our May 11, 2013 posting]) as well as directs (he’s probably best known in this activity for the first two Iron Man movies [2008, 2010] and Cowboys and Aliens ).
The premise of Chef is simply a story of personal reinvention and family reclamation, with Favreau as Carl Casper, the head chef at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant owned by Riva (Dustin Hoffman), a guy with more concern for playing to customer familiarity than acknowledging the gourmet creativity of his kitchen wizard. Carl, aided by colleagues Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Cannavale), wants to push out beyond his expected “greatest hits” to new concoctions that will show that he’s more interested in exploring cutting-edge culinary discoveries than he is in simply filling the cash register with the traditions that he’s now established at the restaurant. Attempting to buck obstinate Riva when a famous critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), is scheduled for a visit puts his job on the line so Carl acquiesces, leading to a scathing review from this food snob who expects to be delightfully surprised by what arrives on his plate, not simply satisfied with its proven success. Now angered and humiliated by the situation, Carl creates utter havoc for himself by suddenly learning about Twitter from his 10-year-old-son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), then sending a vicious reply to Michel which he doesn’t understand is out there for public consumption rather than a private message. (I can certainly understand his confusion over the operations of social media as I’ve just begun to explore Facebook in an attempt to build a larger audience for this blog—I’ve only got a personal page so far [look me up under Ken Burke if you like, although there are lots of us with that name so I’m the one tagged from Hayward, CA] but hope to have a page that specifically links to this blog sometime soon so watch for the famous Like icon when it hopefully appears here—in the meantime, though, anyone who wants to add me as a Facebook Friend is welcome to visit that site and request such--even readers in Russia who, once again, seem to have dropped off of my tallies; I guess my Kiev-sympathy-sentiments still aren't border-crossable.) A couple of more flaming exchanges are posted, leading to Michel being invited/dared back to the restaurant to sample what Carl’s really capable of in his latest culinary experiments but Riva blocks him so Carl’s fired leaving Tony to reluctantly serve the old favorites again, prompting Michel to post another nasty dismissal. (I admit, I’m no blogger champion [although, thanks as always to the 6,000 or so of you who do read these film reviews on a monthly basis], but it amazes me that this independent restaurant blog is so large and impactful compared to what I’d expect to be the case from a Los Angeles Times reviewer [but that’s all part of a plot point to be finalized later], just as I’m amazed that such a critic would alert an establishment that he’s coming to dinner [as was the case with both of his visits in Chef] and that everyone knows who he is [Michael Bauer, restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, makes it a point to keep his identity secret so that his dining experiences are more authentic, not the result of a prepared performance]; however, some narrative elements of this film have to be accepted on face value for the whole thing to play out as planned, so just ignore the logical fallacies [that bedevil much of fiction, even the best constructions] and keep your concentration on the fabulous food that keeps appearing every few minutes which will keep you quite satisfied—as well as ravenously hungry when the show’s over, so you should have a dining option determined and a reservation in place if needed because you won’t want to wait any longer than necessary to chow down after seeing Chef.)
Once the existential crisis is in place for Carl, though, the surface events of the rest of the plot are about him finally giving in to his ex-wife, Inez’s (Sofía Vergara), suggestion that he shift gears to a food truck while the real focus of the film is on how Carl and Percy find the father-son-connection that had eluded them when Carl was putting too much time and energy into his chef’s career, driving him away from his family (at least that’s what I derived from what I saw on-screen; it’s not clear until about halfway into the film whether Carl and Inez were married nor if they’re divorced or just separated, although we do know that she has another ex-husband who must have left her with a comfy settlement given the fine house that she and Percy occupy compared to Carl’s dwelling which seems to be mostly a kitchen with a little extra furniture [further, I couldn’t help but notice that Inez’s house looks like a larger version of the one that Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) have on TV’s Modern Family which just makes it a bit harder for Vergara to shake the connections to her Gloria role there, especially because in the few movies I’ve seen her in since she became a pop culture icon (except for her vicious-man-hater in Machete Kills [Robert Rodriguez (no relation to Sixto), 2013; review in our October 16, 2013 posting] her accent and clothing just don’t take her very far from the immediate Gloria associations]), a problem that continues even when it’s for the post-divorce-visitation-times with his son which Carl’s always late for, has to cut short, or keeps to a superficial level at amusement parks and other diversions rather than getting to really know the kid on an interpersonal level. However, sympathetic Inez provides a solution by encouraging Carl to accompany her on some business trip to Miami (where they both originally came from, but, again, I’m not clear what Inez’s profession is [although it involves a publicist, Jen (Amy Sedaris), who has an hilarious phone conversation with Carl—after his spat with Ramsey Michel really goes viral when Carl comes to his just-now-former-job-location toward the end of the critic's second meal to unload his anger on Ramsey but is videoed in the process delivering his diatribe and burning his future career to a point far beyond well done—trying to offer him an appearance on TV’s hostile-cooking-environment, Hell’s Kitchen; I’ve since read that Inez is a party planner, and if that’s correct then I guess the parties are of the sort that you’d expect for Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s wedding reception]) so he can be nanny to their son. What she’s really doing is setting him up with her first ex, Marvin (Robert Downey Jr)—this story has got to feature the most easy-going-divorceés I’ve ever seen in a cinematic setting—who provides Carl with a ramshackle food truck which is the final push needed to get him into the mobile-food-service-business, joined by eager helper Percy, who’s finally doing something substantial with his dad, and Martin, who flies in to help out with this venture, leaving Tony back in L.A. to try to make something of the ruins of Riva’s restaurant (we never see Cannavale or Hoffman again in any notable way as their situation loses meaning for Carl).
Given Carl’s limited Spanish and Percy’s limited (at first) cooking experience, Martin proves to be a godsend as they quickly establish a presence in Miami's South Beach area, then head out on the road back to L.A. with stops in New Orleans (so that Carl can finally fulfill his long-pending-promise to his boy to see the city that Daddy Chef raves so much about) and at Austin’s (where the film premiered at the March 2014 SXSW Festival, hence a possible reason for the additional stop that has no particular need in the plot except to show that the El Jefe truck menu can be a knockout with more than just Cubano sandwiches) famous Franklin Barbeque (which, unfortunately for me, opened years after I left town but I may have to return just for a world-class-meal there). During this summer getaway for Percy he and Carl finally become quite close, as shown later by a video that Percy posts featuring a collage of 1-second-snippets of him and his dad on the road that lets the father know that the wounds have healed between him and his offspring, just as this family bonding brings Inez around as well to join in when Percy’s back in school (although he continues to be at the truck evenings and weekends so that even though this business is all-consuming they’re all there together to share in it). Peace is made between Carl and Ramsey also, as the critic with the razor words secretly samples Carl’s much-better-than-it-has-to-be-truck-food, then makes him the offer of a lifetime to provide financial backing for Carl to have a restaurant of his own so that everything can end on a fabulously happy note. (Seems that Michel sold his blog for a fortune—now we’re really going down the road from L.A. to Fantasyland, at least in my blog experience, but more power to anyone who can make any sort of comfortable living off of this cyberspatial-activity—so he’s got the cash to support the talent that he always believed that Carl possessed, although why he was so nasty to the guy earlier can be explained only by some sense of needed tough love from Ramsey to Carl; a non-diegetic [look it up; it makes for an interesting, although theoretical, read] professional entertainer’s hostility to critics [script by Favreau as well, so maybe this isn’t just about restaurant reviewers]; or a need for a quick wrap-up so that after the new, swanky eatery is open 6 months later we can end on a party scene where here’s a clear implication of Carl and Inez remarrying, accompanied by the sounds of “Oye Como Va” as played by the Cuban band led by Inez’s father—a tune I know best from Carlos Santana’s 1970 Abraxas album [here’s a live version at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Y46Y1aXQQw that expands considerably on that earlier recording and also includes some of the marvelously-edited-multi-format-multi-imagery used by Michael Wadleigh in Santana’s performance of “Soul Sacrifice” in the Woodstock (1970) documentary] but the version used in Chef is from Tito Puente who wrote it in 1963 [here’s Tito and his band at the Montreal International Jazz Festival doing their version at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YG5BYAY6oW4, much like what you'd hear in the film.)
So, with all of this feel-good-euphoria why do I say only 3½ stars for Chef, a film that’s been getting a rousing round of support all over the country with few naysayers of the Ramsey Michel ilk? Mainly, I temper my sincere enthusiasm for the fine comic interchanges (especially between Downey Jr. and Favreau, Favreau and Vergara about sexual encounters between Inez and Marvin in her post-divorce-lull after Carl), the evolving sense of connection between Carl and Percy (modeled on gaps that Favreau remembers from his own childhood, as noted in the interview with him in the links far below), the sensual-overload that comes from just looking at all of that delicious food (even though there’s nothing left for you to munch on in the theater when the credits roll except greasy popcorn and watered-down-soda), and the effective presence of so many notable actors here, even though many of them just get a couple of scenes (including the now-ever-present Scarlett Johansson as Molly, the chief-hostess of Riva’s restaurant and a non-romantic-confidant of Carl’s) with a mild disappointment that the whole experience turns out to be more of a Riva-style-story of well-done-but-predictable-expectations rather than the surprising turns of events that other reviewers of this film are praising. Yes, there’s fine character development in Carl, Martin, and Percy; yes, Carl convinces us that his dedication to cooking comes in the art of the preparation and delivery rather than in the easy satisfaction of expected ingredients (even a grilled cheese sandwich that he makes for Percy has the meticulous care of a finely broiled steak); but, yes, we can see almost every plot point coming a mile away, especially with the life-crisis-set-up so clearly detailed in the trailer. The photo above of the happy, reunited family working together (also easily found in promotional materials and reviews for the film) fills in the only missing piece from the preview clips so there’s really nothing to push you beyond anticipation/payoff here except maybe the squabbles between father and son when they’re first renovating the truck and Percy is learning how to make a proper Cubano. Beyond that it’s all like easily-seen-batting-practice-fastballs, even though when the actors make contact with them the results fly deep into the outfield because there’s a great cast of old pros and 1 TV-kid-emerging-into-a-possible-movie-star here doing a fine job with a well-written-script of interactions if not plot complexities.
I certainly enjoyed Chef a lot—just not enough to get it into my loftier cluster of star ratings—although I do recommend it for an excellent lead presence by Favreau, consistently-effective-dialogues among the main characters, and an argument for art over commerce that never gets old (although when the art leads as well to hand-over-fist-cash-in-the-till-commerce that argument may get lost a bit; but I hope the argument survives that audiences of all kinds are willing to pay for true art—food, films, or otherwise—when the passion of the creators is sincere and digestible, a message somewhat obscured in the early going of this story as Carl complains that when he did push the culinary envelope at Riva’s place the diners didn’t want it so we’re left with a bit of a mixed-interpretation that critic Michel was the only unvoiced-support for Carl back at Riva’s place [except for Molly, Martin, and Tony, but who cares what these well-paid-peons think in our celebrity-and-monetarily-influenced-society?] while eaters of the upscale-truck-cuisine know a good thing when they taste it but only when it’s in the form of properly-prepared-fast-food). After some careful consideration, I’ve decided that my usual closing musical metaphor, chosen this time to extend your considerations of Chef, should be the America tune “You Can Do Magic” (from their 1982 View from the Ground album) because it expresses in a direct way what we’re supposed to understand about Carl and his realized passions (which reminds me of the title of an obscure 1972 Beach Boys album, Carl [Wilson] and the Passions—So Tough [with the long-time-surfer-band changing identities briefly just as The Beatles did only once for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967]) as he’s idolized from the start by Martin, regains the respect of Percy, and rekindles the lost love of Inez, who always seemed more disappointed in Carl’s inability to attain his true calling than really upset with him as a failed husband (she does show a bit of disgust at his inadequacies as a father until after the cross-country-road-trip with the food truck, but she’s quick to agree to whatever seemingly-lame-brained-idea Carl has to connect with the kid so she’s never the sort of vicious-ex-wife who’s often set up to impede family reconciliations in these romantic comedies). Regarding this ego-enhancing-tune I’ve chosen, you can either see the official 1982 music video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5Adx0RXpvg (a good example of when these early song promotions offered little but performance footage of the entertainer) or for a different take on this song here’s a fan-enhanced-version with lyrics on screen at http://www.youtube.com/watch ?v=8umNOkhqWRw in tribute to (obsession with?—I doubt that rickhavoc501 is going to have his fire put out anytime soon) Harry Potter sweetheart Emma Watson, but if seeing such a celebrity-centric-version of a videomaker’s dreams seems a little uncomfortable here’s another one similar to that focusing on a more-anonymous (but still passionately-celebrated)-woman by another video artist (or if she's also well-known I offer my apologies for not recognizing her) at http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=O7ONp-GC7vM. Assuming that these options will keep your positive-reinforcement-quotient at peak levels for a while, I’ll see you soon with an exploration of time-warped-mutants and one of the most evil fairies to ever menace a kingdom.
If you’d like to know more about Chef here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgFws3AoIUY (if you don’t feel like seeing the film this trailer almost gives you a full summary of the whole plot except for the very end)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTDBCv9P95M (4:53 interview with director/screenwriter/actor Jon Favreau from Jo.Blo.com)
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