Emma Street‘s tastebuds are tingled by Jon Favreau’s NomCom.
Chef is not a film to watch when you’re hungry. It’s stuffed full of lovingly captured shots of chopping, dicing, roasting, frying and sprinkling. Big hunks of barbecued pork are tenderly sliced while cheese is slowly melted and bread is smothered in butter before being toasted to a perfect shade of golden brown.
There’s a scene in which a half-dressed Scarlet Johansson watches as chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau, who also directs) fries onions, garlic and chillies before stirring spaghetti into its speckled oiliness. It’s clear that dinner and not leggy, pouting Scarlett is the sexy focus of the scene.
Chef is a film about a man whose passion and creativity in the kitchen is being stifled by The Man; The Man in this case being Dustin Hoffman, the owner of the restaurant in which he works. When the world’s most influential food blogger (Oliver Platt as “Ramsey Michel”) gives the restaurant a two-star review, Casper embarks on a bit of a meltdown; berating the critic in the restaurant before, in a state of high emotion, explaining how to make chocolate lava cake while snatching bits of cake off other diner’s plates and crumbling it in front of the bemused critic’s face.
Casper’s downfall comes via social networking: the rant, recorded by the other patrons, immediately goes viral on YouTube and Casper is left feeling that he will never work again. His problems are compounded by his misadventures with Twitter, which he doesn’t understand but tries to use anyway.
The film is very consciously about the digital age. This is about blogs, about Twitter, about Vine. In some ways, it’s quite refreshing. There are still too many films which are supposedly set in the current day and seem to be unaware that the internet exists.
But Chef’s way of dealing with it is pretty clunky. Filmmakers have always struggled to show ways of depicting words on a computer screen in a sensible or interesting way. Sherlock has text messages popping up on the screen. Doogie Howser used to have to read everything he typed aloud as he was typing it on his nineties computer. I bet he was a pain ten years later when he was texting from the train.
Chef shows its characters’ tweets as words on the screen which turn into little cartoon birds and fly away with an appropriate tweeting noise when the sender hits send. It’s really fucking annoying.
There is a lot of exposition about how Twitter and other forms of social media work, which can be slightly annoying for the more switched on members of the audience. You know, like you and me. Obviously, you are into all this crazy modern technology because you’re reading this here! On the internet! And I’m writing it!
Casper seems to assume almost immediately that his restaurant career is all washed up, which I’m not sure is very believable. Embarrassing as it might be to be known as the chef who goes a bit mental in that Youtube video. I never found myself convinced that as much was at stake as the movie tried to tell us it was. Surely, he just needs to find another job.
Instead, Casper decides to buy a rundown food van and rediscover his love of cooking on the road with his son Percy and friend Martin (John Leguizamo) as they tour all the significant foodie spaces in America: cue lots more lovingly-crafted shots of food cooking where the food now matches the scenery. Brisket in Texas. Cubanos y yucca in Miami. Beignets in New Orleans.
Where the film is strongest – other than the food porn, obviously – is where it concentrates on the relationship between Casper and Percy. (Although, Percy – really? What kind of name is that to inflict on a child?) As the kid of divorced parents, Percy is heartbreakingly desperate to connect with his father who is the for the most part selfishly wrapped up in his own problems. And while Casper is probably foisting his own passions onto the kid a bit too much (how do you know he wants a chef’s knife? Maybe he’d rather have a skateboard), there are some great scenes where the three guys just hang out doing man stuff like drinking beer, singing along to Marvin Gaye and putting cornflour on their sweaty bollocks.
Casper certainly works his kid hard throughout the summer (and American summers are long – surely they must have violated some child labour laws?), giving him the chance to learn to cook the perfect toasted sandwich as well as teaching him the joys of scrubbing old grease out of trays. In return Percy uses his internet skills to pimp his dad’s van on Twitter and puts together a video montage which you know is going to be significant later on as soon as he mentions it.
This film is clearly Jon Favreau’s pet project, giving him the opportunity to do something a bit less comic-book than Iron Man (while roping Robert Downey Jr in to do a cameo). Casper’s a big, sweaty tattooed guy who doesn’t look like anyone’s idea of a leading man (although being both the director and lead character means you can ensure that your guy is romantically linked to two hot women regardless).
Chef is sweetly funny, but for a road movie it never really feels like it’s going anywhere. What do we learn? That food, love, food, family and food are the important things in life and Twitter doesn’t really matter. Except that Percy used Twitter to spread the word about Casper’s cooking so maybe’s Twitter’s really important. Twitter is both unimportant and really important. And food is the sexiest thing there is.