I took to the airwaves a day early this week to chat with Phil about Attack on Titan: End of the World, which had its world premiere in Hong Kong earlier this week, before singing the praises (with slight reservations) of stoner action comedy American Ultra, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.
Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, an acclaimed Californian chef whose life is a perfect storm of male midlife malaise; the failed marriage, the estranged child, the sexual relationship with a co-worker and most important of all, the seeding resentment that comes with having a boss (played by Dustin Hoffman) who (despite bankrolling his career and success) won’t give Casper the freedom to fully express his talent.
This portrait of a successful, yet almost completely un-self-relective male could well have been the starting point for an intriguing comedy. After a searingly bad review, Casper’s inability to control his anger gets the better of him and his life goes into free-fall. But, rather than examine what is really wrong with Casper, the film becomes a farce where everyone pulls together to help him be successful again.
Casper’s girlfriend Molly (Scarlett Johansson) simply steps aside, no strings attached so he can focus on restoring his relationship with his son Percy. The opportunity for that presents itself when Casper finds himself in Miami, not only with the chance to spend time with his son but perhaps more importantly, with a wealthily backer willing to put him on the road with a food truck.
Casper gets to Miami thanks to an offer from his ex-wife, Inez (Sofía Vergara), who gives him the chance to be a the babysitter, since she needs to be in Miami for work. However, the film omits to ever really explain what she does for living, or how she can afford to fly coast-coast via First-Class (few Fortune 500 senior executives can manage that these days). This isn’t a minor omission, since work, career and success are such powerful factors for the male protagonists in the film, like Casper and his assistants Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Cannavale).
Even Casper’s relationship with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) feels odd. At first Casper has little regard for his son, arriving an hour late to pick him up and giving the child little attention. Percy is desperate for his father to notice him and they start to spend more time together once the story moves to Miami, where Casper’s treatment of his son borders on being abusive. Eventually Percy proves his worth to Casper, largely because he shows promise as a cook and helps market his father’s food truck via social media.
Chef contains cameos from people one would expect might add colour (and much needed humour) to the film, like Robert Downey Jr (as Marvin, Inez’ first husband and unlikely backer for the food truck), Amy Sedaris (as a publicists, Jen), Russell Peters (as an intrusive Miami cop) and BBQ legend Aaron Franklin as himself. But, each cameo only seems to slow the already glacial pace of the story down and create meaningless eddies that are never fully resolved.
In the end, Chef doesn’t fail because of a lack of talent in front of the screen. Neither does it fail because an inability to reflect our times. In fact the way the film mixes our current obsessions with social media and casual gourmet cuisine feels very much “of the moment.”
Chef fails simply because it is unwilling to examine the problem it sets itself right up front – what the male midlife crisis looks like today. Casper doesn’t change, grow or develop as a person and never really has to look inside himself to examine the reasons for his failures or the extent of the pain he has caused others. Life, quite simply owes him success because he is just so damned talented. And, eventually, given time, and wealthy backers, everyone will flock around him and build a shrine to his masculine awesomeness.
I wanted to like this film. To be honest, the mix of Latin American cuisine, social media savvy, a very likeable cast along with the combination of a comic road trip and dramatic father-son story really appealed to me. But, the whole experience such feels so trite, shallow and undemanding that even watching the cooking sequences felt tiresome. A thorough and unrelenting disappointment.