SXSW CHEF Review: Your Hip Mom Will Love This Movie

Jon Favreau breaks out the chef's knives in the SXSW opening night film. 

One of my closest friends is a career chef, and to be honest, he can be a real persnickety pain in the ass. He's quick to call out inauthenticity in fictional kitchens, and he presents a "if you've never worked in a kitchen, you don't get it" point of view at every opportunity. I think he will quite like Jon Favreau's Chef, the opening night film of SXSW that tosses out phrases like "family meal" without pausing to explain them to the uninitiated, and maybe that's the best compliment I can give it. 

It took me a little longer to warm up to it, myself. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a once avant-garde chef who has grown a little stale and whose life goes quickly downhill after he receives a scathing review from a notorious food critic (Oliver Platt). My hackles were up from the beginning: Casper boasts knuckle tattoos that read "El Jefe" and Favreau presents himself as something of a superhero chef. The most egregious show of ego in the film is that Favreau plays a man whose ex-wife is Sofia Vergara and whose current lady friend is Scarlett Johansson. I could buy one or the other of those.

But once Casper suffers a professional and personal crisis of confidence and takes to the road to rediscover his love of food, the film shows a lot of heart. Casper and his sous-chef, played by John Leguizamo, take on a food truck and traverse the country serving Cuban sandwiches. Casper's never been particularly close with his young son, and Percy joins them on the journey and learns to cook under Casper. Their relationship makes up the crux of Chef, and if it didn't work, the film would fall flat as a prairie. Fortunately, it does work. 

There's an interesting dynamic in Chef: when Casper is working as the head chef of a traditional gourmet restaurant owned by Dustin Hoffman, Hoffman insists that he serve a crowdpleasing, but not particularly innovative, meal for Oliver Platt. Casper doesn't stick to his guns and prepare the menu that excited him, instead offering the fare that made him famous ten years ago, but that's nothing particularly special today. After he reads the review, he attacks Platt on Twitter and in person, furious that a critic would, well, criticize something he created: something he himself admitted was mediocre. This presentation of Platt as the bad guy lasts for most of the film, and it's hard not to see it as Favreau's response to his own critics - but the ending of the movie, while forced, at least acknowledges Casper's culpability in his own disappointing creation. 

I mentioned Twitter, didn't I? The most bizarre aspect of Chef is its heavy narrative reliance on social media, with Vine, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter all playing a significant role in the impetus of the plot. Tweets are graphically represented by frenzied little birds flying into the air, and try as it might, it makes Chef feel not particularly of this time. This feels like social media for your mom, who still thinks Facebook is sort of amazing. 

It makes a lot of sense that Chef would open at SXSW, as there's a celebratory climax in Austin, featuring Franklin Barbecue and Guero's. It may feel like a bit of fan service - and the crowd certainly loved it - but there's no denying that Favreau has genuine affection for Austin. And affection is possibly the strongest thing Chef has going for it. Emjay Anthony plays Casper's son, and he's quite lovely, and Favreau's direction demonstrates adoration for this charming kid, for the road, for Austin and New Orleans and Miami - and most especially for food. In a strange coincidence, I actually ate a Cuban sandwich as I stood in line for this film, and I've never been so glad to still have the taste of a meal in my mouth. Chef is a lot of things - it's fitting that a road trip movie should be so all over the map - but what it is most of all is a celebration of tasty food and the people who make it, and I guess I can get behind that. 

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