Sunday, October 5, 2014

Chef (Aldamisa Entertainment, Kilburn Media, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Friday night’s North Park Movie Night was held in the parking lot outside the North Park Theatre in San Diego, and featured a movie showing, a beer garden, some music (the flyer for the event promised a D.J. but he played mostly 1970’s-era funk jazz and items like T. Rex’s “Jeepster” instead of the cold, anonymous, annoying “dance music” of today) and a cocktail-tasting contest in which five judges were supposed to taste-test the work of eight bartenders from local North Park establishments — and the winner was from Wang’s, a place I’d always thought of as a Chinese restaurant and had had no idea  they even had a cocktail bar. The preliminaries of this event were a bit of a trial for me but the movie was worth the wait; it was called Chef, was released earlier this year (May 30) by a couple of independent companies called Aldamisa Entertainment and Kilburn Media, and was an auteur triumph for Jon Favreau, who wrote, directed and starred. Favreau plays chef Carl Casper, who ten years earlier had been a hotshot food star in Miami and had won the Food & Wine award for best chef of the year, but currently he’s running a restaurant in L.A. for owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) and he’s creatively burned out, largely due to Riva’s insistence that the cuisine at his restaurant remain permanent and unchanging so as to avoid disappointing the regular customers.

For the first reel or so it’s strikingly reminiscent of Big Night (1996), also a film about a restaurant co-directed and co-written by its star, Stanley Tucci, in which the family running a fading Italian restaurant gamble on a supposed visit by Louis Prima and decide to cook a special meal for him so he’ll spread the word that this is a fabulous place to dine and they’ll attract the customers they need to stay in business. (If it had been a 1930’s movie someone would have sought out the big star and brought him to the restaurant, but because this was a 1990’s movie, albeit set in 1959, the cooks make their fabulous dinner, Prima never shows and the restaurant goes out of business.) In Chef the man whose presence, absence or opinion can make or break the restaurant isn’t a music star; he’s a food reviewer and blogger, Ramsay Michel (Oliver Platt), and he was one of Casper’s original boosters 10 years earlier. Casper has worked out a stunning new lineup of dishes to serve the feared critic, but at the last minute Riva shows up and demands that Casper serve only the most tried-and-true items on the menu. “Look, if you bought Stones tickets and Jagger didn't play ‘Satisfaction,’ how would you feel? Would you be happy?” Riva explains. “No! You'd burn the place to the fucking ground.” Alas, Ramsay Michel is not like a Rolling Stones fan who wants to hear only their greatest hits from the 1960’s; instead he writes a snotty review that not only gets posted to his blog but “goes viral” on the Internet. A divorcé with a 10-year-old son named Percy (Emjay Anthony) and a Latina ex-wife named Inez (Sofia Vergara) who before she hooked up with Casper was married to an eccentric Miami-based entrepreneur named Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr., in what according to is his first collaboration with Favreau apart from the Iron Man movies), Casper doesn’t understand what “going viral” means until his son explains it to him. Casper asks Percy to set up a Twitter account for him, and Casper uses it to send what he thinks is a private message to Ramsay Michel but which actually goes public and starts an intense flame war.

Ramsay announces he’s going to re-review the restaurant, and Casper works his ass off to concoct a new slate of super-dishes to make the most jaded foodie’s palate water — only once again Riva shows up at the last minute and demands that Casper cook the same-old same-old Ramsay has already slammed in his previous review. So Casper walks out on the job and leaves his second- and third-in-command, Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Cannavale), in charge in the kitchen — and when Ramsay learns that Casper didn’t show up on the Big Night he posts a tweet that Casper didn’t have the guts to face him again. Casper reads that online, shows up at the restaurant and vents his spleen at Ramsay. We see the tell-tale signs that his rant is about to go viral when people hold up their smartphones and little blue lights go on indicating that they’re video-recording it — and unlike Rick Santelli’s infamous CNBC rant that started the Tea Party, this one doesn’t do anything but kill Casper’s career stone-dead and make it impossible for him to get a job at any other restaurant. Inez tries to help by introducing him to a publicist, Jen (Amy Sedaris, David Sedaris’ sister), who says she can get Casper onto a food-based “reality TV” show called Hell’s Kitchen, but Casper is appalled by the prospect. Instead Inez arranges for Marvin in Miami to meet with Casper — but all Marvin is willing to do for him is give him an ancient, dirty food truck to clean up and outfit for the Miami streets. Martin bolts Riva’s restaurant in L.A. to work as Casper’s sous-chef aboard the truck, and Percy agrees to spend the summer helping his dad — and the three of them, aided by a friend of Martin’s who gives the food truck a fancy décor job and the name El Jefe (“The Chief”), give a new spin to the traditional Cubano sandwiches and other items on their menu. They travel cross-country, including a stop in New Orleans, with Percy serving as their online publicist and sending a series of tweets explaining that their increasingly legendary food truck is coming to your city and you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to dine there. They finally make it back to L.A., where Casper reluctantly gives his son the job of working with the food truck on evenings and weekends — and he also gets another shot at a restaurant from an unlikely (but, as long as you’ve seen enough other movies first, predictable) source: Ramsay Michel, who’s sold his food blog for “a ton of money” and is willing to stake Casper to an El Jefe restaurant where he can cook whatever he wants.

Chef may not seem like much in synopsis — the plot gimmick of a former superstar losing his mojo and then getting it back through experiences that humble him and teach him the real meaning of love and humanity isn’t exactly the freshest idea for a movie, and neither is the one about the divorced dad who wasn’t much of a parent to his kid when he and the mother were together and hasn’t been doing any better at it since the breakup either ­— but, once past that somewhat draggy first reel, it’s a sheer delight, a screwball comedy for modern times and one of the few recent films (along with Little Miss Sunshine, Stranger than Fiction and Kabluey) that not only have been comedies “in form and intent” but have actually been genuinely funny. Chef is warm and appealing, the characters are people we genuinely like and want to see succeed (about the only extraneous person in the film is Molly, who works at Riva’s restaurant, apparently as head of the waitstaff, and is having a desultory affair with Casper at the beginning before both he and the film leave her behind; she seems to exist in the story only so Scarlett Johansson can add her talents to an already formidable cast), the growing father-son bond between Casper and Percy is well portrayed and Jon Favreau proves adept at the triple-threat task of writer, director and star. Another point I’d like to make about it is it’s a movie that conveys the sheer delight of cooking; the shots of Favreau and the other cast members actually preparing food take on an almost sensual aspect that's fun to watch (and makes you want to crack open a recipe book and try something more adventurous in the kitchen than your usual fare). Chef isn’t a film I would have sought out or expected much from, but it turned out to be a real delight, an invigorating evening at a time when I really needed one!