Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Measuring Up"

Yesterday, I discussed what, for me, are the legitimate underpinnings for the criticism of movies (or any other artistic enterprise), which, I suggested were two in number: 

Underpinning Number One: 

You have to measure the work against its creator’s intention.

And Underpinning Number Two: 

Evaluating, minus the possibility of perfection because “perfection” is an impossibility, how close the work’s creator came to realizing that intention. 

With these parameters in mind, I shall consider the film “Chef”, written and directed by Jon Favreau.

Think about this.

A successful L.A. chef (played by Favreau) is considering preparing a special menu for a highly-regarded (or at least an extremely popular) restaurant critic (played by Oliver Platt) who is arriving that evening to critique the restaurant.  The “strictly business” restaurant owner (played by Dustin Hoffman), however, insists that the chef not deviate from the protocol, sticking instead to cooking the tried and true items that have made the restaurant successful. 

The chef surrenders to the restaurant owner’s demands.  The critic arrives, samples the food, and then, in his review, slams the chef for playing it uninspiringly safe. 

The chef then invites the restaurant critic back, promising that this time he will not be disappointed.  The critic agrees to come back. 

The restaurant owner again demands that the chef adhere to their crowd-pleasing cuisine, and the chef again caves, with the inevitable consequence that the food critic’s second review is even harsher.

Does the chef then go “Postal” on the restaurant owner for insisting that he follow an erroneous strategy?  Does he berate himself for not staying true to his principles?


The chef instead accosts the restaurant critic (who, in effect, is standing up for the principles the chef had so wimpily abandoned), and in a tirade that winds up on YouTube, he proceeds to humiliate himself and obliterate his career.

Why was that creative choice made?

To satisfy the needs of the plot, which requires the chef to be down and out so he can turn his life around and ultimately make a triumphant comeback while simultaneously bonding with his neglected son.

That’s why.

You can tell that a story is disturbingly off the rails when the dialogue buttressing the wrong turn sounds ineffectual and shrill.  The rant with which the chef flays the restuarant critic falls flat, not because it isn’t true – thoughtless food critics can inflict unnecessary hardship and hurt feelings – but because it is inconsistent with the reality of the story. 

The irate chef is yelling at the wrong person.  (Another of these plot “conveniences”?  The chef’s ex-wife insists that, feeling creatively constricted by his current position, the chef would be happier – not standing up to the restaurant owner, not by quitting his high profile job and opening a small restaurant of his own, not by quitting and opening a loftily intentioned culinary academy, but by giving up his high profile chef’s job and selling food out of a truck.

Really?  That’s where you go first?

Okay, that’s enough. 


I am assuming that it is never a filmmaker’s plan to make a movie premised on a transparently illogical storyline.  Therfore, I have to assume that Jon Favreau intended on making a movie that made sense.

In that regard, Favreau did not succeed in realizing his intention.

And by saying that, I have responded to the second consideration first.

The first consideration?  What was his original intention? 

Answer:  To return to his cinematic roots.  (A premise mirrored by the story of a chef returning to his culinary roots.  A clever echoing of Favreau’s personal situation.)

In that intention, Jon Favreau has comfortably (and entertainingly) hit (very close to) the bull’s-eye.

Jon Favreau first achieved (well-deserved) attention and acclaim as the writer and co-producer of the 1996 $200,000-budgeted independent film Swingers.  He more recently directed the first two way-on-other-end-of-the-filmmaking-spectrum Iron Man movies.  You can see where he might want to, at least temporarily, revert.

I remember liking Swingers, and Chef reminded me of it in its relaxed style and the characters’ believable interactions.  There is a standout scene between Favreau and Robert Downey Jr., who plays Favreau’s ex-wife’s first ex-husband, who, although he’s, I believe, a building contractor, has possession of a beat-up food truck.  (Why?  Because…all together now…that’s what the storyline requires.)

Some of the scenes, especially the ones including John Leguizamo (playing the chef’s culinary sidekick) are played out so naturalistically, they feel, at least partially, improvised.  (In truth, I can never tell if something is improvised or simply appears to be improvised but is actually scripted.  The latter – writing dialogue that feels so real it sounds improvised – is, to me, the superior accomplishment.  It is also easier.  If scenes are actually improvised, you have to shoot “take” after “take” until the improviser inadvertently says the right thing.)

Full marks for Favreau’s, with Chef, succeeding in his intention of returning to to his indie-prod (independent production) beginnings. 

As far as the intentions of the script is concerned,

Another draft (or two) most certainly would not have hurt.

(An Unasked-For Suggestion:  Near the end of the film, when the restaurant critic (unexpectedly) resurfaces, the chef could have apologized to him, explaining not, as he does, that the restaurant owner made him cook the “safe” menu, but that he was actually angry at himself.  Sometimes the tiniest “adjustment” can make all the difference.  Of course, had they made that adjustment, I’d have had nothing to write about.)

(So, I guess, thank you.)

1 comment:

Doc McCoy said...

With so few legit & good movie critics left I've come to rely on your reviews. Now I know, Chef is out. Since I've never been interested in Sc-Fi or super heroes, Capt. America was never in.

I do see lots of movies, but I see them at home...theaters priced me out a long time ago. As a Netflickee, I see no fewer than 4 flicks/week (except when I'm tired of it and take the week off, which is rare). Occasionally, I rent TV shows instead of movies. Frasier, Cheers, Mad About You, Wings...I am a fan of Major Dad and it is or was as of last month, still showing for free on Hulu.

Lately, I'm on a Steve McQueen kick (again). Saw Tom Horn over the weekend and enjoyed it a lot. It piqued my interest in Horn and I discovered that there's a new book about him coming out next month. In the meantime, I'm reading Horn's autobiography (although if I didn't know better, I'd swear it was written by Huckleberry Finn!). Although he had a very limited education, he did have an ear for languages and quickly learned to speak 'Mexican' and 'Apache' not long after leaving his Missouri home at 15 (I think). He led a fascinating life, with a tragic end.