SXSW Film Review – Chef
It is easy to forget amongst all the stars and astronomical budgets that Jon Favreau began his career as very successful indie filmmaker. It is not often you see filmmakers go from working with every resource available to working for scale. That speaks to passion, and that is what Jon Favreau did for his latest project, Chef, which was the opening night premiere at SXSW.
After chef Gary Carter (Favreau) is fired from his job as the chef de cuisine at an upscale restaurant, he is forced to take a cross-country trip with his son (Emcey Anthony) and best friend (John Leguizamo), as they attempt to open a food truck. Along the way, he begins to reevaluate what it means to be a chef and a father.
As much as I like Favreau as an actor, which is quite a lot, writing and directing has definitely become the driving passion for him in the last decade. He seems to fall more into that Harold Ramis mold of filmmakers, who like to act, but more seem to do it out of necessity or a fun diversion rather than a need for attention. It is great to see him behind the reins once again, and he hasn’t lost a step. Favreau has always shown a fantastic knack for timing and he gets to put it to full use here working opposite John Leguizamo.
One of the major plot mechanisms is the use of social media. Favreau is not a newbie to this world (despite playing so in the film) and the use of Twitter and Vine are called out regularly by name. Within the context of the film, it works, but it leaves a feeling of being so ensconced in the current pop culture that I’m concerned about the ability of film to age in 5-10 years or beyond. Perhaps down there road we can look back at this movie as a “period piece” because of it, as seems to it loses a certain amount of “timelessness” due to its inclusion.
Clearly the breakout star of the movie is Emjay Anthony as Favreau’s son, who accompanies him on his journey, as well as acting as his conduit to the world of social media. Despite acting against a cast full of veteran actors, he more than holds his own, as well as being driving force of the heart in the movie, which, ultimately, is what makes the film a success.
It is hard not to get hungry watching movies about food. They always do such an excellent job of making it all look so beautiful. I dare you to watch Big Night and feel nothing. Similarly, the food here looks amazing (in particular during their stop in New Orleans), but you can tell extra attention has been paid to this, as there is a lot of footage of the process of cooking, as well as the fact Favreau actually brought a professional chef (Roy Choi) to make sure the cooking looked as authentic as possible.
One of the most engaging elements of the project is the way it raises the issues of passion and criticism. This is something I’ve certainly thought a lot about as a film critic. The balance between artists and critic is, and probably always will be, a very tight rope to walk. Obviously, the film is mostly handling this from the artist perspective, but it does raise the question, where does criticism belong in our society.
It would be foolish to judge this film against Favreau’s previous work, both large and small. It doesn’t have the same snappy dialog of his work on films like Swingers and Made. I’m not saying it isn’t funny, but people shouldn’t head into this looking for the next great comedy. It probably is closer in tone to the second half of those movies, when the characters are forced to reach a painful crossroads and grow up. Previously in his career, that was getting over a relationship or some single guy problem like that, but here, he has a kid and an ex-wife, so the stakes are that much greater. It is a little silly to classify this as an independent film too, when you are able to call in favors and have your friends like Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson appear in small roles it automatically disqualifies it from that category.
My main problem with the film wasn’t the acting, the food, or the story. I found the pacing to be unbalanced. It takes a lot of time to get to the road trip in the story, so much so that I honestly thought I had read the wrong plot synopsis. There is a lot of good punch in the first half of the movie, but very little of it is as emotionally meaningful as the later half (with the exception of when he loses his job). It certainly would be fair to describe this as a slow burn. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the payoff was equal to the buildup, but ends up feeling a little underwhelming. Still, despite these minor complaints Chef is a solid return by Favreau to his roots, it is nice to see him returning to passion projects – flaws and all.