For 20 years Jon Favreau has been earning his living in Hollywood by acting, writing, directing, and producing a variety of films, surrounding himself with some of the industry’s biggest names and some huge franchises. When I saw that he wrote and directed Chef as a vehicle for himself, I was hoping for a passion project, something with an indie-movie feel that would be as quirky and idiosyncratic as his career.
With supporting roles by Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, and Robert Downey Jr., plus an unceasing parade of food that would give a celebrity chef a hardon, Chef should have been impossible to put down. But while the presentation was tasteful, the story lacked substance.
I think Jon Favreau is a talented, charismatic guy. When he broke into the industry with Swingers in 1996, I was 16, not far from my first real breakup, and the writing hit all the right spots. His follow-up, Made, was just about as good (both movies were helped considerably by Vince Vaughn), but he began directing and acting more than writing. He brought us a lot of big-budget fun like Iron Man and Elf, but what I really wanted was a home cooked movie without compromise.
But dramatically and comedically, Chef failed, and it seems as if the problems started with the script. This is the perfect example of how a movie can fail because of structural problems, the kind of problems new screenwriters have to learn from the get-go. I’d like to compare Chef to Swingers in terms of story structure and the crucial second act.
In the opening of Swingers, heartbroken Jon Favreau tells his buddy he doesn’t want to get over his breakup by going out to bars to pick up women; he’s not ready to get back into the dating scene; he doesn’t like the pressure and doesn’t want to be a leering, desperate dude. He wants the freedom to recover at his own pace. His friends have other ideas.
Throughout the whole 2nd act of Swingers, Favreau’s character gets further and further from what he wants. His friends drag him to bars to get numbers and fish for girls. The entire 2nd act is devoted to the conflict established in the opening moments, and as he invests more and more in this lifestyle, the odds of him coming out the other end healthy and whole get slimmer and slimmer. Since we know how depressed he was in the beginning, the stakes are getting higher and higher.
But when he finally finds the right girl—a girl who obviously doesn’t belong in that scene either, who feels the same pressures and is obviously looking for a gentleman—he’s able to be himself, and proves through his actions that he’s turned a corner with his ex. When the climax finally arrives, it’s a breath of fresh air; he’s overcome the conflict on his own terms, and it’s satisfying to see. In the final moments we see him sitting across from his friend—who’s worse for wear and delusional about his own ability to get girls—and we have a vision of what he might have become if he’d succumbed to his initial conflict.
Chef has none of this. In the first act, culinary guru Favreau wants to run his kitchen his way. Dustin Hoffman won’t let him, so he quits. Favreau’s ex-wife (Vergara) suggests he open a food truck, which invokes a shrug of derision, but we never discover any meaningful reason why this obvious solution to his problems isn’t worth consideration. Then, the entire 2nd act is devoted to getting a food truck up and running.
Again, the overall conflict is that Favreau wants to run a kitchen on his own terms. The 2nd act is devoted to him doing exactly this, with increasing success, though it’s in a truck, and that’s not exactly what he had in mind. And instead of turning up the conflict, the whole 2nd act is a cavalcade of successes; Favreau, his kid, and his right hand man (Leguizamo) take this truck out and just ace it, with money and good times rolling in.
Half way through the movie there was no conflict left. At the climax, he gives up the food truck to open his own restaurant, which he’s able to do from a last minute investment from his food critic nemesis. The conflict and 2nd act didn’t pull him further from his goal; it was a smooth transition into the exact life that he wanted. When he finally makes it, I’m not surprised at all, and I didn’t feel like anything significant was accomplished.
What might have provided conflict, Favreau’s relationship to his son, comes off very tired; Favreau’s a visionary chef who doesn’t have time or patience for his son until his son proves useful at promoting the food truck on Twitter. When the son questions Favreau about the failed marriage (to Sofia Vergara), Favreau clams up, saying it’s just better that they’re divorced, and better that they don’t talk about it.
Then, in the denouement, we see Favreau getting remarried to Vergara for no reason I can decipher. This is made worse because their relationship wasn’t elucidated much, nor was their divorce. So I’m left with this 2nd marriage that I can’t possibly feel good about because I never had any inkling whether they belonged together or not. Surely they got divorced for a reason, but I didn’t care; their on-screen chemistry was about as dynamic as an old loaf of bread.
If you’re looking for a light comedy, you could do a lot worse than Chef, but you’d get more laughs from random YouTube videos. If you’re looking for food porn, again, you could do a lot worse than Chef, but you could also turn on the Food Network any time of day and avoid a story that just isn’t satisfying.