For this year's opening night film, South by Southwest serves up Chef, an indie homecoming by Hollywood bigshot Jon Favreau, who wrote, directed, and stars in a visual dish that’s more a passable gumbo than a four-star entrée.
Favreau plays Carl Casper, the titular chef, highly successful and passionate about his food and his restaurant, but forced to conform to a money-grubbing owner's wishes. After a dust-up at the restaurant (do food bloggers really have that much sway?), Carl looks to reconnect with his foodie roots – and with his 10-year-old son, whose custody Carl shares with his ex.
He does this by opening a food truck and taking a road trip that promises, of course, to take detours (real and metaphorical), revel in “real” life, and bring back into focus the things that really matter.
Parallels between the character and Favreau himself – he broke out with the amazing indie hit Swingers in 1996 and now directs megablockbusters like Iron Man – are clear as rice noodles. Before the screening, Favreau himself spoke to the audience, saying the movie was “incredibly personal,” the kind of passion project that made him recall Swingers.
That a Hollywood man of Favreau’s stature has the artistic desire to keep it real is commendable. That Chef is meant to set the tone for all of SXSW Film, as SXSW Film Director Janet Pierson told the packed house at the Paramount, speaks volumes.
Fittingly, Favreau throws everything and the restaurant-grade kitchen sink into the film. There’s his will-they-won’t-they relationship with the restaurant’s manager. There’s the wise-cracking sous-chefs. The amicable divorce and possible-maybe-eventual rekindling. The father-son road trip. The requisite scenes of Favreau and others making sweet, succulent, passionate food porn in a variety of positions and situations. It all works out in the end.
“It’s spicy. Do you like spicy?,” Chef asks his son in one scene, encouraging him to try some boudin for the first time. “No,” says his boy. His chef father quickly replies: “Well, it’s not spicy.” Jon Favreau is eager to please.
For a first- or second-time auteur, this would be a decent dish, but Favreau is an old pro trying to have it all ways, and the film’s ingredients, while great discretely or in different combinations, at times get muddled to the point of distraction. Or maybe it’s just his Hollywood friends that are distracting? Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara, Oliver Platt, and Robert Downey Jr., all have bit parts in the film, their appearances notable only in that these are all notable people. An “indie homecoming” without underexposed actors hungry for their own Swingers-esque “baby, you’re money!” moments is like hearing a well-heeled out-of-towner saying they like coming to Austin because it’s “weird.”
And yes, the city of weird gets what feels like a slightly overplayed shout-out (the audience certainly loved it), with plenty of shots of South Congress and a cameo by both Franklin Barbecue and its owner Aaron. But it's this scenic amuse-bouche that actually highlights the most satisfying aspects of Hollywooder Favreau and his indie film. The Austin leg of the road trip seems more of a true love letter than a crass pandering to the locals.
The same goes for the “chef” parts of Chef. Anyone who’s ever worked in the restaurant racket will admire Favreau’s attention to the tiny details essential to any true-to-life representation of the cooking world. From the way Favreau himself wields a knife (knuckles out!) and the use of orange-striped kitchen towels, to the talk of “pre-shift” and “family meal” and the hoisting of elongated food items as phallic props, it’s clear that Favreau’s personal project is one rooted in a love and respect for the subject matter at hand. When he and John Leguizamo (low-key in his sous-chef role) sling food in their tiny truck, they dance like real cooks.
The intimacy of these scenes represent the tone SXSW used to inhabit in its less-commodified past. It’s such impulses to be “real,” to dance in a small, artisanal space, that make Favreau’s indie passion-project a worthy representation of SXSW Film in the latter’s current, foot-in-the-mainstream iteration.
See our shots from the Chef red carpet here.
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