Jon Favreau’s new movie is about a creative guy who dumbs down his work to please his undemanding audiences, suffers a career-killing review and rediscovers the joy of putting his heart and soul into small-scale projects.
No, it’s not about what happened to the director of “Swingers,” “Elf” and two “Iron Man” movies after he delivered the epic misfire “Cowboys and Aliens.” Well, OK, it kind of is, allegorically.
On the surface, his indie comedy “Chef” depicts the midlife crisis of a renowned Los Angeles culinary artist. Peel the onion back a layer, and it’s a classic Hollywood story.
“It’s equal parts, really,” of autobiography and make-believe, Favreau said by phone recently. He put enough of his own experiences into the story that he could relate to it. “Though the food-critic world differs from the movie-critic world, I can relate to how it feels to read something that’s mean. Those are feelings I can relate to about my business. As a creative person, you’re well aware of the tensions between individuals’ passions, management, the customer and the reviewer. All those moving pieces, I understand how they interconnect.”
Favreau stars as Carl Casper, whose career implodes when his timidity collides with his anger. He allows restaurant owner Dustin Hoffman to insist that he serve a top critic safe, dull fare, then begins a social-media feud when the writer calls him out on it.
He finds his redemption by operating a food truck and recruiting his neglected 10-year-old son to help him make mouthwatering Cuban pork sandwiches on a cross-country comeback tour. The road trip is a breezy sampler of Favreau’s favorite places and things: salsa music in Miami, beignets and French roast coffee in New Orleans, brisket in Texas and pretty women in L.A.
There were also dramatic purposes for setting the story in the food world. Unlike the movie industry, it’s a place where people don’t think of themselves as being in the public eye and where a single damning review can do real damage to a reputation.
Special-effects knife work
“It’s interesting and cinematic,” with shots of sizzling delicacies that would fit on “Top Chef,” Favreau said. “You’re a one-man band, even though you have a kitchen crew behind you, in a way you are not in the movie business. That’s boring, sipping cappuccino, sitting in a chair and watching a monitor. In a kitchen, you get to do interesting things with your hands.”
And how. In one scene, Chef Carl slices a cucumber razor-thin at Mach 3 speed with a chef’s knife. On that bit, Favreau admitted he called in some special-effects support. “I like my fingers,” he explained.
Favreau has immersed himself in study for other acting roles, learning “boxing, football, how to be an astronaut.” While he moved on when those movies ended, he’s still using the cooking techniques taught to him by his cooking mentor, Roy Choi, one of the founders of the food-truck movement. In fact, “I’m putting a commercial kitchen in at home,” Favreau said. No sense letting those skills go to waste.
Choi made all of the food that is shown on-screen, and the crew and cast members gobbled it down when Favreau called, “Cut.” “It was so damn good,” he said. “I went through half a dozen grilled cheese sandwiches in one day.”
Chef Carl is on a quest for respect — from his critics, himself, his former father-in-law and even his ex-wife’s former husband, a difficult character played by Favreau’s “Iron Man” star Robert Downey Jr. It’s a theme the filmmaker said he finds personally meaningful.
“There are two things at my age and stage of my career that are interesting to explore. One is balancing family with career and the other is balancing passion with the pragmatic concerns of your business. Those two balancing acts are ones that you can get slightly wrong over the course of many, many years, and you find yourself miserable.
“It generally doesn’t come down to a Sophie’s choice at any given moment. It comes down to a slight rebalancing of what you’re prioritizing. And you end up divorced, you end up estranged with your kids, you end up feeling compromised and regretting every time you have to go to work.
“I wanted to make a movie about a guy who found himself, after thinking that he was happy, realizing that he was just a ghost in his own life. His life by any outside standards looks glorious and glamorous, but he’s unfulfilled. And so by reconnecting with the simple things, getting the basics right, connecting with the people around him, sharing himself and experiencing love, the small things grow into big things.”
Franchise movies rarely allow for that kind of character arc. Their heroes have to start back at Square One in the next installment, ready for a repeat of their last adventure. But for all the pleasure this film gave Favreau, we shouldn’t expect to see him operating his own little artistic food truck.
“I’m definitely going to a big restaurant next,” he said, extending the metaphor. “You have an array of tools that allow you to explore your craft much differently on a big movie like ‘The Jungle Book,’ ” a live-action/computer-effects hybrid for Disney that will be his next project. “On a small movie, it’s like cooking with a campfire and a stick.”