Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Sofía Vergara.
Lessons from the Kitchen
Anyone who loves good food and great music will love “Chef,” so we can dispense with the review. This column isn’t about film reviews. It’s about why things work on screen and how they do it.
Written, directed and starring Jon Favreau, no one will argue that this movie is fun. It was so much fun, in fact, that for most of the film I kept waiting for the real conflict to kick in. It never did. So I left the theater feeling amused, but with the nagging sensation that this meal would not last. That it was the cinematic equivalent of a well made soufflé. Which is not “wrong” or even easy to do. But it does provide a great teaching experience for those of us who can’t bank on Robert Downey Jr. & Dustin Hoffman to drop by the set for a great cameo. (read on…)
CONCEPT: This is a redemption story, focusing on Chef Carl Casper and his nine year old son Percy, estranged since Carl’s divorce.
MAIN TENSION: “Will Carl finally learn that his relationship with his son (and family) is the true source of his art and strength, rather than his flailing attempts at chef celebrity?”
STORY: As one might imagine, given this story tension, Favreau’s first act is arranged to demonstrate dad’s preoccupation with work, and his thoughtless dismissals of his son in favor of setting up the perfect menu for visiting food critic (Oliver Platt). Twist: Carl’s moment to shine is short circuited by his boss’ insistence on shelving the special menu for a return to his golden oldies. The evening goes predictably bad. The critic’s review is scathing, and after a highly public twitter battle with the reviewer, Carl is fired. End of Act One. Clear enough.
The Road to Redemption, which comprises the film’s second act is laid out for him by his ex-wife Inez (Sofía Vergara from Modern Family). Now gents, if you have to be divorced, you want Inez for your ex. A hot, Latin supermodel, ever cheerful, zero spite or malice towards him. She bends over backwards to support Carl, even offering cash and encouragement to go rediscover his creative genius aboard a food truck. As long as he takes his son with him.
I got the sense that this character wasn’t so much an ex-wife as a fairy godmother. But here’s the rub (and the lesson). We probably all know divorced couples. Any ex-wife this nice does not exist in nature. And Favreau’s decision to steer his story away from ANY marital strife is also a decision that never lets this story, or its hero, touch bottom.
Dramatically speaking – the ex-wife IS the detractor. No one is in a better position to serve as a lightning rod for a hero’s deepest flaws and deepest wounds. It’s her job to be the lens for his inner journey. And by leaving the detractor out of the story, by taking away this natural adversary, you also rob the hero of a canvas for his struggle. You rob him of those hard questions that are the proving ground of his transformation. “Am I a good man or a selfish prick? Am I a crummy dad? Can I see beyond my own selfish obsession with fame to recognize the needs of this kid who is depending on me for his role model?” Or will I need to sink to some lower depths of self-absorption before I see the pain I am creating around me?
These are the requisite questions that this story WANTS its hero to ask, given its story arc. And when he does not ask them. Or does not ask deeply, we feel it. It’s not satisfying. It’s a meal that won’t last.
Okay, stop. To be very clear. I am not advocating turning this lovely comedic romp into a drama. Favreau knows better than most how to control the tone of his films. And striking the right balance is tricky stuff. That’s why CHEF provides such a golden opportunity to illustrate this principle of comedy by one of its greatest directors, Billy Wilder.
“You gotta jump down to jump up.”
What does this mean? It means that the rubber band of our emotion must be stretched in both directions. There is no comedy without pathos. There is no belly laugh without tears to set it up. And there is no redemption for Chef Carl because Favreau never really lets him fall into the kind of asshole-ery from which he can recognize his mistakes.
If you haven’t seen any of Billy Wilder’s comedies lately, I recommend taking a look at “The Apartment” (Best Picture 1961). You can add “Some Like it Hot,” “Sabrina” and “The Fortune Cookie” to the list. Every one of those comedies touches a real bottom, marked by deception, genuine cruelty, lies, manipulation, bad behavior – whatever it takes to hold the mirror of ugliness to the hero and make him see who he has become. That’s why these movies work. That’s why they win Oscars. And that’s why we remember them.
Is “Chef” a bad movie? Heck no. But this column isn’t intended to review films. It’s intended to analyze what works, what doesn’t, and reveal the mechanisms behind it.
In this case, the take-away you can use is what I call The Billy Wilder Principle. It’s a bit simplistic, but it might be all the more memorable and usable for that. “You gotta jump down to jump up.”