Harsh Texture


After losing his posh job following a Twitter feud with a food critic, a chef opens a food truck and reconnects with his son

I first learned of Chef from a breathless article that claimed it got current technology right. After the moderate disappoint of “Her” in that regard, I was more than willing for a film to address tech even if its aims were much more modest. Don’t fall for the opening shot where a disemboweled pig is reduced to cuts of meat. The real key sequence involves an early conversation between Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) and his moppet son, Percy. Casper learns the ages-old dodge of “go ask your mother” as a means for fathers to shirk parental responsibility doesn’t work at all in the era of texting.

I’m happy to write that yes, Chef does “get” technology in a way that typically elludes western film.  It’s the future. Advanced computing is with us everywhere. Even luddites carry connected devices with them at all times as matter of course.  Communication platforms connect hundreds of millions of people around the globe.  But the interfaces into this world are imperfect.    

Casper sees his professional life crushed when he unwittingly starts a flame-war with a food critic (Oliver Platt!).  Casper, a man with few filters in real life, decides to defend his honor via a crassly worded response to a tweet from the critic thinking that his message will be private.  The war of words that ensues nets Casper’s account twenty thousand followers, though he’s clueless to their value. When the confrontation spills into the real world, Casper’s expletive-laden dressing down of the critic costs him his posh job and is documented by a number of videos that go viral.   

“Chef” sets up the consequences of Twitter as a joke on Casper’s cluelessness, but really it pokes at the assumption that these services are “intuitive”.  Would fresh eyes on a Twitter or Facebook type social networking platform naturally grasp all their implications?  No, of course not. It takes trial and error to really understand these tools.  Even power-users often only use a small subset of the available functionality. A contemporaneous survey on Twitter users found that a full third don’t know they could “favorite” tweets, one of the core capabilities of the platform. The industry knows this and created an entire discipline, UX (short for user experience), solely tasked with making interfaces more understandable. Chef grasps the importance of this. After all, in Chef’s world it takes longer to explain how to take photos on a smartphone than to prepare any of the fabulous dishes on display.

Every year, a popcorn film will connect with the over-forty set.  “Chef” hits that sweet spot, but its hard to quantify why. Is it that Casper is so clueless with technology that nearly anyone else would look good in comparison? That the older, notoriously technically illiterate crowd would be able to say at least once “geeze, even I knew that!”. Or is it much more simple: inoffensive entertainment where Sophia Vergara’s form fitting clothes have to compete with the loving shots of food for the most enticing visuals of the movie. Is it that ninety minutes are promised in which likeable leads triumph over moderate adversity and are rewarded with richer professional and personal lives?

After shepherding the first two Iron Man films, and thus laying the groundwork for the current mega successes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Jon Favreau can count many friends among Hollywood’s A-List. His small film boasts a billion dollar cast, but their appearances all feel like favors, squeezed into hectic schedules.  Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr, and Dustin Hoffman make brief appearances, delivering their lines haltingly as if their dialog was improvised or only hastily rehearsed. Some manage to add a bit quirkiness, but only a bit. Obviously their appearances add excitement to the film in general, but wouldn’t these roles be better suited by actors who were more committed? Chef’s best asset is John Leguizamo, who devotes all of his copious energies to the proceedings as Casper’s loyal sous-chef.

The problem with casting A-Listers is more acute among the women. It’s not that Chef fails the Bechdel Test, nearly every mainstream film fails the Bechdel Test. It’s that it employs Sophia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Sedaris who all only exist in absolute devotion to Casper. The cumulative effect must be like seeing Gloria Steinem on the cover of Good Housekeeping. Johansson has endured this for most of her career, that she broke through in the Bechdel-acing Ghost World makes her plight all the more cruel.

If there’s a Bechdel Test for how women are depicted in film, there should also be a test of how insufferably entitled the children of these films are.  A major plot point involves Percy’s disappointment that Casper can’t immediately fly them both out to New Orleans for a vacation. He sulks in a Hollywood mansion attended by no fewer than three house servants. “Chef” takes the boy’s side in this, obviously living in a world where impromptu cross country trips are more inconvenience than prohibitively expensive.

It must be mentioned that Chef can at times feel like an infomercial for Twitter. Certainly the company blessed their depiction in the film given that trademarked logos and icons appear throughout. The filmmakers are sensitive to this. Perhaps wary of how “The Internship” was dismissed as too fawning over Google, Twitter is first introduced as an antagonist. Casper only becomes aware of the service when his more interconnected friends and coworkers each declare “Fuck Twitter!” referencing the negative exposure he’s gathering. Other services get a bit of a nod, including rival Facebook, even if they aren’t stated explicitly.  

How well Chef ages then is pretty reliant on how long Twitter survives as a major social force. Nothing is assured. As Chef continued its theater run, the company underwent a few shakeups as user adoption plateaued.

Published: Dec. 10, 2016, 12:32 p.m.
Updated: Dec. 10, 2016, 12:32 p.m.