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SXSW Review: Jon Favreau's 'Chef' Starring Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo & More

Reviews
by Drew Taylor
March 7, 2014 9:40 PM
13 Comments
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Ahead of the inaugural screening of Jon Favreau's latest film "Chef,” the movie is being heralded as a glorious return to the filmmaker's independent roots. Favreau, after all, wrote "Swingers," one of the more influential indies of the '90s, and reteamed with his "Swingers" co-star Vince Vaughn for a madcap mobster comedy with 2001's "Made" (a film that he directed, too). Since then, he's been swayed by the Hollywood machine, turning out a number of big budget smashes (“Iron Man”) but these films were, to many degrees, tentpole-anonymous; possessing little evidence of the voice that made him such a sensation in the first place. And while the more down-to-earth "Chef" does offer some fascinating autobiographical dimensions, the film is also an overlong, unfunny, largely insufferable bore. This doesn't feel like a homecoming; it feels like a step backwards into a generic Culver City studio zip code.

Starring in as well as writing and directing the picture, Favreau plays a celebrity chef working for a lenient but largely disagreeable boss (Dustin Hoffman) at a hot restaurant in Los Angeles. After Hoffman leans on him to cook a safe and uncreative meal for a powerful food critic (Oliver Platt), Favreau's dishes are then panned. His "creative rut" becomes a full on existential crisis, complete with a heated meltdown at the restaurant, in front of Platt and a whole host of onlookers, who capture the "hilarious" blow up on their cell phones, for all of eternity (or at least however long the social media cycle lasts). Not even the super hot hostess at the restaurant (Scarlett Johansson, with phony riot girl tattoos and Betty Page black hair) can soothe his worried soul; it's that bad.

Already suffering from a strained relationship with his son (Emjay Anthony) and ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), Favreau agrees to accompany the family on a trip to Miami. The ex has some kind of mystery job that is never fully explained but allows for a truly lavish lifestyle, and she offers to pay for Favreau's ticket. She wants their son to spend time with his grandfather, and she thinks that exposure to some more local cuisines will reignite Favreau's passion for cooking (his passion for eating is never questioned—Favreau seems to be shoving food into his face in every single scene). His lieutenants in the kitchen—played by Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo in game supporting comedic player roles—stay behind, as he embarks on a journey of self-discovery, one in which he looks to reconnect with his love of cooking and with his family. And both are in need of serious rehabilitation.

What makes "Chef" somewhat watchable, at least for the first 45 minutes or so, is how clearly autobiographical the movie is. Since "Made," Favreau has produced a series of hugely expensive studio tentpoles, many of them missing their mark ("Iron Man 2") or bombing hard ("Cowboys & Aliens"). In "Chef," Favreau purchases a junky old food truck and rekindles all of the sensations that were dead to him before, and this middling, too on-the-nose little independent movie is a clear stand-in for the truck. What makes much of the movie then feel rotten is the fact that Favreau's character cooks uninspired food for Platt and turns around with contempt for Platt’s review pan. Is this really Favreau saying, "Hey, a lot of good people worked on 'Cowboys & Aliens,' cut us some slack?" If so: woof.

Once the truck arrives to ostensibly reawaken the spirit that the soulless, trendy LA restaurants (or studio suits) nearly crushed, the cook piles his young son into it and heads back to the promised land of WeHo. They are joined, as if by magic, by Leguizamo, who somehow knows exactly where they will be and offers to be the Robin to Favreau's food truck Batman. And off they go—on an adventure full of tweets (Favreau, who is now addicted to that sweet drug known as visual effects, has the tweets appear hovering overhead and then flying away, accompanied by a chirpy bird sound effect) and overtly earnest moments of fatherly bonding. And, of course, lots and lots of cooking.

Closely resembling a road trip movie, this whole middle section of the movie is bland and predictable. Once the gang embarks on some new leg of the journey, you can bet that there is going to me a nifty montage accompanied by a Latin-flavored pop song (including, bafflingly, some kind of salsa cover of "Sexual Healing"). It's sappy, it's derivative (he even lifts a shot from Michael Bay's "Bad Boys"), and it lacks spontaneity and edge. Even an out-of-nowhere cameo from Robert Downey Jr., as one of Vergara's ex-husbands, can't enliven the proceedings. What's the point of returning to the world of independent cinema if Favreau is going to play it centered so far away from the margins?

Even attempts at illustrating character substance fall flat. This ad-hoc family drives by a Disney World at one point and instead of choosing the Happiest Place on Earth, Favreau’s son chooses a detour to New Orleans to try out all the good food. Not only does the move feel disingenuous, but it’s ironic considering Favreau’s been suckling from this same corporate teat for the last decade or so. Whether this is a conscious biting of the hand that feeds is up for debate, seeing as no other elements of the movie feel even vaguely subversive.

As "Chef" stretches into its excessively sentimental third act, in which even more groan-worthy life lessons are learned and an improbable wedding is staged, the movie goes from being boring to exceedingly tedious (it even steals a major plot point from Pixar's superior chef movie "Ratatouille"). It's not as earth-shatteringly awful as last year's SXSW opener "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," but it's damn close. To borrow one of the many lame metaphors it employs, "Chef" feels horribly undercooked. But if you want to see a self indulgent, hubris-driven car crash where the filmmaker uses his latest narrative as a thinly-veiled defense of his past career transgression, this is the movie for you. A phony and hokey return to origins, it’s unclear what’s worse: Favreau delivering a repast less substantive than the tone-deaf Happy Meals he's been making for the past decade, or his genuine misguided belief that he’s prepared an authentic home-cooked meal. [D-]

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13 Comments

  • BGS | July 3, 2014 8:49 AMReply

    The interpretations this critic made are very imaginative and far fetched, of course if I viewed every movie as if it involved me personally I probably would be forced to live out my paranoid phantasies as well.

    It's as if Mr. Taylor sees his imbodiment in Oliver Platt and doesn't like "his" portrayal in the movie. Get over yourself, this movie is not about you! The only reason you don't like it is because it's critical of critics, and that is not even the main plot of the movie. But I guess your lack of creative output explains why you so ironically dismiss Favreau's "blow up" because you are not able to imagine what it feels like to create something, actually care about it and then have it torn apart by someone like you.

    This is probably also why you are so very far away from the average score for this movie. Some self-reflection would do you good, and yes, you may be critical!

  • Paul Gillin | June 13, 2014 11:00 PMReply

    Self-important film critic finds many flaws in heart-warming film. How many times have I seen this kind of egotistical blather? "Chef" is a wonderful movie whom fans have rewarded for its sweet, unpretentious nature. How can you possibly hate a film like this?

  • Alex | April 28, 2014 4:13 PMReply

    Saw this last night at the Tribeca Film Festival and I agree with the review. As a commercial film it succeeds. It is a good movie. There's a cute, feel-good story with likable characters, charm, good comedic timing, and delightful sensory experiences (the good food, the good music, the good looking actors/actresses). As an indie though, it felt flat.

    The film didn't offer a new story or tell an old story told in a unique way. The lessons were formulaic and predictable –things that could only happen in Hollywood. What it had in charm it lacked in depth. The roster boasts some big names but you have to wonder what the response would have been if unknown actors had been substituted. Scenes with Scarlett Johansson felt forced and unnecessary. Making spaghetti with garlic and oil didn’t wow as a culinary prowess, nor did the mention of using “King's Hawaiian Sweet Rolls” for sliders in an impromptu addition to the food truck menu.

    As a film that consistently makes you feel good, it succeeds. As something different with a story that will resonate throughout time, it doesn't. Chef serves up many delights but innovation, creativity and soul are not on the menu. That isn't to say it's not worth seeing. It's just in the wrong genre.

  • Dude | March 9, 2014 6:52 PMReply

    All I know is that Scarlett Johansson is and always will be massively overrated. Super hot, hot hot... not. More like what are you people smoking? She's an average looking semi-cute woman that is owned the minute you step onto any college campus.

  • snort | March 9, 2014 11:57 AMReply

    Get your mind right, son. Burt Wonderstone was better than average. I laughed.

  • gerard kennelly | March 9, 2014 10:08 AMReply

    thanks for spoiling the surprise cameo !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • no | March 9, 2014 11:56 AM

    Nah, he's been listed in the credits and in the trades for months.

  • Critics critic | March 8, 2014 9:40 AMReply

    This vitriolic review that essentially calls out Favreau for wanting to make a simple picture with heart like he used to reflects more on your mediocrity as a reviewer than his considerable storytelling abilities. I guess you see this as a thinly disguised shot at dime store critics who hate movies almost as much as they hate themselves for their own lack of creative output. I suggest you dust off your college screenwriting 101 book and see if you can craft a simple story instead of defecating on a filmmaker who has done more than you could ever dream of. And I give you a solid 1.5 out 5 for your reviews.

  • Critics critic | March 8, 2014 9:40 AMReply

    This vitriolic review that essentially calls out Favreau for wanting to make a simple picture with heart like he used to reflects more on your mediocrity as a reviewer than his considerable storytelling abilities. I guess you see this as a thinly disguised shot at dime store critics who hate movies almost as much as they hate themselves for their own lack of creative output. I suggest you dust off your college screenwriting 101 book and see if you can craft a simple story instead of defecating on a filmmaker who has done more than you could ever dream of. And I give you a solid 1.5 out 5 for your reviews.

  • Thisismyname | March 7, 2014 11:47 PMReply

    This!

    "If Favreau wants to rekindle his passion he should do another season of Dinner For Five and just get talking to creative people."

    Dinner For Five needs to come back.

  • JP | March 7, 2014 10:00 PMReply

    "Favreau [...] has the tweets appear hovering overhead and then flying away, accompanied by a chirpy bird sound effect"
    That sounds awful.

    If Favreau wants to rekindle his passion he should do another season of Dinner For Five and just get talking to creative people.

  • Emperor Zerg Rush | March 8, 2014 1:59 AM

    There was a film with Carly Pope in it that did something similar. It wasn't clever, cute or relevant then either.

  • yer | March 7, 2014 10:48 PM

    ""Favreau [...] has the tweets appear hovering overhead and then flying away, accompanied by a chirpy bird sound effect"
    That sounds awful. "

    It is awful, but if David Fincher did it no one would bat an eye.

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