This week is the South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, and we're lucky enough to have updates from the festival every day. Below is the first.
Chef, directed by Jon Favreau
Every high school student knows that the ancients had three categories of conflict: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. himself. To these, modern film adds one: creator vs. critic.
Of course, we also learned in high school that not every text should be read as veiled autobiography. But what if the protagonist (Jon Favreau) is a brilliant chef played by the writer/director himself?
What if that protagonist wants to challenge himself but is threatened with termination by his boss (Dustin Hoffman) if he deviates from the tried and true menu/formula?
What if that protagonist tells his blogger critic (Oliver Platt) not once but twice that bad reviews hurt his feelings?
What if the artist himself introduces his film by saying he is glad for the opportunity to do a smaller film because they don't have to please everyone, can be about lessons one has learned in life, and can be more than just another escape fantasy?
If we take Favreau at his movie's word, directing Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Cowboys & Aliens must have been quite a dreary affair. And apparently true geniuses are too busy innovating to figure out Twitter. Favreau told the opening night audience at SXSW that he has a lot of "eight page" scripts from ideas that generated enthusiasm but cooled before he could flesh them out. The idea for Chef stuck with him, however, refusing to be consigned to a someday-before-it's-too-late project.
The result is a film that is as familiar as the comfort food that Chef Carl Casper rediscovers when his professional meltdown goes viral and leaves him with neither joy in his work nor the security for which he compromised his passions. But fortunately for the artist and the audience, the extended metaphor between director and chef holds true in this part as well—familiar fare can be quite pleasing when it is well prepared. If the beginning of the film feels a bit like a fusion of Ratatouille and Big Night with a side of Kramer vs. Kramer, the latter half has a few twists in store. The most welcome one is that the film doesn't also knead in the sports genre and climax with some high pressure, competitive cook-off for all the proverbial marbles.
Even the best chef needs a good team behind him, and Favreau gets solid support from John Leguizamo as a loyal sous chef, Oliver Platt as the critic-nemesis, Sofia Vegara as Carl's ex-wife, and Emjay Anthony as his son. Robert Downey, Jr. has a hilarious cameo, and Scarlett Johansson and Dustin Hoffman contribute in smaller roles that don't normally attract such big stars.
Favreau the director makes food preparation look exciting and even, at times, sexy. Perhaps a greater accomplishment is that as a writer he forges a father-son relationship that feels authentic. Percy (Anthony) is a good kid who is frustrated with his dad but hasn't yet given up on him. Carl learns that he has to figure a few things out (besides Twitter) for himself before he can begin to teach his son what is really important.
The father-son scenes are sentimental and surprisingly tender without being maudlin. They are so good, in fact, that they made me notice something I usually don't pay much attention to in modern films: bad language. Early in the film, Carl expresses discomfort at the use of the excremental explicative around Percy, but as the film progresses that element of self-discipline never gets addressed—not even after dad explains to son that a really good chef who loves what he does shouldn't let even one burnt sandwich go out to the customer.
But that said, it would be a real shame if the film ended up with an "R" strictly because Carl can't control his tongue. That complaint will sound nitpicky to some, but experience tells me that if the swearing is enough for me to notice, it's enough to bother some viewers who might otherwise find the film delightful.
That element of the film is a bit like having three mouthfuls of a great entrée and then getting a salt bomb in the side dish. It might not be enough to ruin the whole meal, but it sure is disappointing when you thought you were well on your way to four stars.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of1More Film Blog.