Chef – A soulful yet simple bowl of mac and cheese

I thought going into Interstellar without taking a leak was the worst decision I had made, but then I watched Chef, a movie about how brilliant food is, without having eaten all day. Chef is a movie directed and acted in by Jon Favreau, and centers on the romance between man and food, and the American food culture. While the movie uses a very simplistic formula and seen-in-the-past character arcs, I cannot see myself putting this movie down as it is one of the better elegant and fresh new comedies. I did have a lot of problems watching the movie, and a lot of this left me feeling disappointed toward the end. Although, if you can let your mind rest for just a while and kick back with some grilled cheese and beer, this could potentially be an enjoyable experience. What I can say about Chef is this – depending on the mood you watch it in, this could be either a relaxing or excruciating ordeal.

I find the compelling need to address one of the positives first, and that is how fresh and elegant this movie looks. The movie does apply a fair amount of good camerawork and well thought-out angles to take shots from. For the most part, the movie is a visual treat, very colourful and delicious. On that last note, I have to say that no other film has ever made food look so very mouth-watering and comforting as Chef does without effort.  The amount and intensity of colour used is appropriate as it shows the movie for what it is, something simple, effortless and visually pleasing. Make no mistake, this movie will entice you and make your glands salivate until they run dry, not just through the images of food, but also the picturesque landscapes of the American suburbs. But vegetarians seem to be facing the unfortunate end of this, as with the exception of a few carrots and radishes thrown here and there, the rest of the food portrayed would be as alien as music is to a deaf man. The movie’s buffet boasts of scrumptious crusty briskets, tender cleaved bacon, and dripping Cuban sandwiches. I feel it is safe to say that Favreau has expressed himself very clearly through this film, and one of those is the way every scene exudes a personality of optimism and positive, fun energy. The scenes in the film coupled with a peppy, upbeat soundtrack provide a sense of energy and reassurance to the audience, begging them to forget your troubles and join in the fun, thus epitomizing the very definition of a comfort film. This is indeed comfortable territory, just as is mirrored in the kind of food that Favreau’s character decides to start cooking, after quitting the restaurant.

A glaring point of note in this film is how much it sacrifices in exchange for beautiful and comfortable pictures. The greatest blow is received by the screenplay and the general dialogue of the film, which seems dry, wavering and too realistic in the way that makes what the characters have to say intensely uninteresting. The fact that the movie lacks in elegant dialogue lingers for the entire run-time except for the occasional exception such as the appearance of Robert Downey Jr.’s character. While the fact that the movie feels and shapes like a documentary does help it in certain areas, but the conversation is not one of them. I understand that the thought behind this must have been to display characters that are close to home, going around doing mundane things, and uttering words that we might ourselves say. But it fails to understand that what makes movies interesting and inviting in the first place is how different they are from real life, and this essentially requires better and more meaningful dialogue. It is not just that the dialogue is uninteresting, but that the conversation between the characters does not amount to anything and does not help us explore them a little more. And that, it seems to me, is the fatal flaw of Chef. Such soulful affair demands better writing in order to elevate it to an indie masterpiece, and in its absence, it feel empty.

cheef

At the very heart of the movie is the relationship between father and son, played by Jon Favreau and Emjay Anthony. Emjay, who delivers one of the least annoying and consequentially excellent child performances of late, plays a boy who is constantly wanting of his dad’s attention and finds that the easiest way to his heart is through the stomachs of those he feeds. He is the anchor that brings his dad down to earth, and represents the central human element in the movie. The relationship is portrayed in an extremely real style, making for the simplistic yet soulful story of people that the movie endeavours to tell through the culinary odyssey. Though it feels very close to heart and touching, once you think about it, you realize that it is a very tried element that is used to propel the centre-stage story of food along. But then, the movie is not trying to say much in terms of meaning, but the very purpose of the movie is a fun couple of hours which make your mouths water and through that, make you see the world through a brighter lens. While the bond between the father and son seems very real and touching even if generic, the other emotions that the movie tries to induce in the viewer seem to fail in arousing any shade of interest. Sofia Vergara, having played extremely funny characters before is here seen in a bland, one-dimensional role that demands almost nothing of her, and leaves her little room to contribute to making the final scene meaningful. It is not that the characters are not real, which they very well are, it is that they are not interesting or layered, to the point of being the mandated yet unnecessary additions to an otherwise enjoyable piece. The same holds true for the other chefs, the manager and many such characters. The one element that I did have high hopes for, but left me feeling betrayed by a bait-and-switch, was the character of Carl’s girlfriend played by Scarlett Johansson. While the way the movie introduced her and the first few scenes with her made it seem promising for a character arc with Carl, her character seems to have been left forgotten among the other dusty characters that enter and exit for just the specific situations they are needed for. It is well evidenced that Carl has a special relation with this woman, and she is the first one we see him connecting with through the shared romance of food. Robert Downey Jr. Too appears in the movie for a total of three minutes (which he completely owns) and then disappears, never to be seen again. This let me down at the moment for it seemed like a larger involvement of his character could only have done the film some good. I know a lot of people will not find these problems with Chef that I do, but I think that the movie would have been left much better off by reducing the human element to solely the father and the son, adding to a touching story of finding each other. I do see that Jon Favreau has written a lot of himself into the movie, his work in movies in particular being mirrored in the rediscovery of Carl’s love for independent cooking, and his love for soulful pieces that don’t have many layers, but are just plain fun to watch.

Social networking and the internet play a major role in the film, seeing as how many shots are filled with the familiar little blue birds that tweet out the verbal war between Carl and the critic Ramsey Michael. The film touches on how unfamiliar and alien social networking media is to adults like Carl, and it is befitting that the father and son find combined solace and redemption in the food-truck using both the kid’s networking habits and Carl’s love for food. As we move through the film, we notice that as the son starts discovering the magic of food, Carl finds himself more accustomed and proficient at using the network to his advantage. But personally, for the rest of the movie, it seemed like the Twitter element was overused to the point of being a gimmick and given way to much importance in a movie about food and tastes, celebrating relations and American culture. It seemed to attempt at exploring modern internet culture of tweeting, online reviews, and such, all of which seem to stand out in this otherwise smooth movie.

As much as I try, I cannot see myself classify this along the lines of any other movie of late, being neither comedy nor drama. There aren’t many moments of laughter or even sly chuckles making it a memorable comedy, and no real conflict between characters that afford it the title of a drama. While I loved the shots of various dishes being prepared and the aesthetic way in which they were shot, I equally disliked the awkward and lifeless human relationships. They seem misplaced and added on for frills in a movie that was meant to be about a man in romance with food. On the other hand, Jon Favreau seems to be much more comfortable and excellent at directing such indie movies, elegant, simple and speaking to the passions of the heart. In its own language, Chef is the cinematic equivalent of pasta with hot-dogs, a soulful, comfortable dish to dig into.

Rating: 6.2/10

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