Chef, Jon Favreau's food-driven movie, opened in L.A. on Friday. If you haven't seen this movie, and you plan to see it, read no further. This post contains numerous spoilers. But if you have seen it, we wonder if you had the incredibly mixed reaction that we had. On the one hand, this is a heartwarming, honest film with snappy dialogue that's basically an ode to some of our favorite people in the universe: cooks and chefs. On the other hand, there is so much about it that's unrealistic, and not just in a Hollywood kind of way.
So, do we love it or hate it? Both. Actually, that's not true at all: We love it, and, like many things we love, we find it problematic. So here are the five things we love, and the five things that drove us nuts, about the movie. SPOILERS AHEAD.
5. Molten Chocolate Cake
Of all the dishes to act as the crux of a storyline, of all the dishes for a chef to fall on his sword over, whyyyyy did it have to be a molten chocolate cake? It's wrong for a million reasons, not least of which is that, despite molten chocolate cake being played out, a chef would have to be REALLY pathetic to make one actually taste bad. So, either the chef is crap or the critic is a liar, and I don't think the audience is supposed to really believe either of those things.
4. AOL? Really?
A food blogger sells his blog to AOL for $10 million. This is hilarious, for at least four different reasons. Not in a good way hilarious, in an I-no-longer-believe-this-story kind of hilarious.
It is incredibly hard to tell in what year this movie is supposed to take place. It's a magical year, one in which Vine has already launched and is being used by fourth-graders (it launched in early 2013), but customers in trendy Los Angeles restaurants won't order sweetbreads (too weird!). In which even L.A. line cooks can't imagine a food truck selling anything but tacos. In which Twitter can make or break you, but ... AOL has $10 million. There are lot of things about this movie that seem very current (see No. 5 in LOVE, below), but many, many things seem weirdly out of date.
2. Critic Storyline
I may be biased here, but everything about the restaurant critic storyline made me insane. In the first place, this part of the plot was lifted, whether knowingly or unknowingly, almost entirely from Ratatouille, the 2007 animated movie. In that film a restaurant critic writes a scathing review of a once-great chef, only to have a food revelation and finally become the benefactor/owner of the successful restaurant that accompanies the happy ending. All of these things also happen in Chef. But apart from that, in a movie that tried so hard to depict chef life accurately, why is the critic character so inaccurately drawn? Even a non-anonymous critic doesn't announce his or her impending visits - how did the chef know a critic was coming to dinner? In what world would any critic decide to invest in a restaurant for a chef? These things may seem like nitpicking, but it struck me as lazy storytelling in a movie that otherwise aimed for food world accuracy.
1. A Happy Ending That's Too Happy
Any story involving children of divorce in which the parents end up getting joyously remarried is unfair to children of divorce everywhere. It barely ever happens, and it's a kind of sad fantasy to perpetuate. The friendliness of Favreau's character Carl Casper and his ex-wife (played by Sofia Vergara) struck me as unusual, but that seemed like a touching depiction of how people might act toward each other when a real affection still exists and a kid is involved. The magically repaired relationship didn't strike the same sweet chord; it felt like a too-perfect fantasy. It would be very nice to see an ending that felt happy but also true to the experiences of kids whose parents aren't ever going to get back together.
What do we love? Lots...
In the same way that the television show Sherlock kind of revolutionized the way audiences experience on-screen text messages, Chef has revolutionized the on-screen Twitter experience. Technology is used well in this movie in general, and the experience of conceiving of, considering and sending a Tweet is particularly clever.
This is a movie that is just incredibly well-cast, from Favreau on down. The kid who plays Favreau's son, Percy, Emjay Anthon, is pretty fantastic and believable. There are delightful bit-part cameos from Robert Downey Jr., Dustin Hoffman and Scarlett Johansson, proving that great acting makes a vast difference no matter how small the part. And John Leguizamo does line cooks everywhere proud.
3. Chef/Owner Relationship
The relationship between restaurant chef and restaurant owner is fairly unknown to the public, and it's a huge factor in what you see on the plate in any non - chef-owned restaurant. Dustin Hoffman, playing the owner, is appropriately clueless, and if this movie does anything to illuminate the frustrations of a creative profession that is often ruled by forces out of the creator's hands, that's a good thing.
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2. Food Porn
There's no denying that the cooking scenes are a pure joy to watch, particularly for anyone who sees knife skills as a superpower of sorts. L.A. chef Roy Choi's producing/consulting work on the project has been much ballyhooed, and the touch of a real chef is certainly apparent.
Beyond even the knife skills and food fights, the depiction that struck us as the most real (and usually unexplored, unlike other aspects of chef life) is the relationship between Favreau's character, Casper, and his son, Percy. Sure, the neatly tied-up happy ending perhaps glosses over the issues of fatherhood and kitchen life, but the fact that it can be very difficult for chefs to maintain family relationships or have the time to be good fathers is depicted honestly and touchingly for most of the movie.