Saturday, June 7, 2014

Chef. A Tasty Bite

Last night, James and I finally had a chance to see Chef, Jon Favreau's new movie about a formerly innovative filmmaker chef, who breaks of a rut of blockbuster movies cooking the same old things by going back to his filmmaking culinary roots. When the writer/director/star is the guy who made Iron Man and Iron Man 2, you have to view it that way. To hammer the point home, he even included Robert Downey Jr. in the film.

(A digression: I have seen neither of the Iron Man films. We've been burned enough by comic book movies that "based on a comic book" is an automatic deal breaker in our household. Paramount's grinding down of the Star Trek franchise wasn't redeemed enough by J.J. Abrams's first film to get us to go to Star Trek: Into Darkness. And, sorry, Disney, George Lucas burned enough goodwill that I'm waiting for the reviews before deciding if and where I'm seeing Episode VII, even with the participation of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher.)

I really liked Chef. Dustin Hoffman was fantastic as Riva, the restaurant's owner, who gives Chef Casper (Favreau) the monumentally bad advice to "go with the hits," suggesting that if the Rolling Stones didn't play "Satisfaction" people would burn down the theater (I suspect that at this point Mick Jagger is somewhat bored of that song, and I wouldn't want to see him perform it out of a sense of obligation). I must have groaned at the menu, because James whispered to me that it wasn't that bad of a menu. Yes it was. That menu was carefully honed to be as dull as possible.

I've read that there are two styles of food criticism. One is where the food critic is a known individual who gets a special meal laid out. The more usual type in the United States is the one whose face is unknown. Many food critics have friends make the reservations. Ruth Reichl even wore wigs when dining out so to be less identifiable. The French do this too; Michelin doesn't even identify its restaurant reviewers.

In the film, thought Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) blurs out his face on his web site, everyone knows who he is. Moreover, he clearly lets the restaurants know that he's dining there, to see what they can turn out. He gets several courses of ennui, with molten lava cake for dessert. His scathing review sets in the plot on motion. The prominence of this critic is underscored by something that makes me wonder how long Favreau spent shopping the script around. The critic's web site was bought up for $10 million by AOL. AOL? Are they still buying stuff?

After the humiliating review (which goes from a pan of dull food to a personal attack), Chef Casper gets on Twitter, starts a feud, and proposes a whole new indie film menu, which the money man shoots down. I loved the scenes that intercut Casper cooking his innovative menu while Michel wonders if the repeat meal is some sort of practical joke.

Second act was redemption, and it was fun. Casper's ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergarea) expertly maneuvers Casper into traveling to Miami with her (there were knowing laughs in the theater at her line, "you know the nannies can't get on the plane") and accepting a favor from her first ex-husband. Road trip. Bonding with his son. It's a quest for self discovery (that gets slightly bogged down in Miami). Since they were permitted for Miami (it's a plot point in a scene that goes on just a little too long), the question does come to mind how they so quickly got food licensing for everywhere else they stopped. I also wondered where they went to the bathroom, and if they slept in the truck, and if so what their personal hygiene was like, but maybe that's just me.

This is the part of the film in which John Leguizamo shines. Without Martin, Chef Caspar would have been doomed. He gets to play not so much the sidekick (that role goes to Emjay Anthony, playing Casper's son Percy), but the guardian angel. Not every one of his deus ex machina moves seems wholly credible (such as getting the truck painted quickly and for free), but Leguizamo plays the character so likably maybe he could charm almost anyone into almost anything.

I liked this movie, but the third act is molten lava cake. The dish innovative cooking once upon a time, but over the last twenty-five years or so, it's moved through being a classic to a cliché. I was hoping that the film would do better than this, because Favreau was just too generous to his protagonist. By then, however, I was happy. From the amuse bouche to the main course, Favreau had given me something interesting to chew on. I can cope with a less than stellar dessert.

(Continuing on this culinary theme, you must stay through the credits, as there is a digestif.)
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