Normy and I are still dodging the painters, plasterers and other assorted decorators who are busy restoring Chateau Maine to full glory. The replica of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the second floor powder room wall with me painted in as the central figure, complete with fedora and tap shoes, seems to have been majorly damaged at some point by some surly guest. I do not look good with a Salvador Dali mustache, especially in cerulean blue, so I am having the whole thing redone as a pointillist riff on Seurat’s Sunday in the Park with me in front with the monkey and Normy next to me with a cigar. Joseph, my manager, has had the brilliant idea of auctioning off the chance to appear as the other figures to various friends and acquaintances to help defray the remodeling costs. So far Debbie Reynolds is slated to appear as the soldier and Dolly Parton as the bargeman.
It’s sort of a slow time at the moment and I am at loose ends and have been looking around for a new mission and purpose. Lulu Pigg, my tap therapist, had come over to work some on my quadriceps as my cramp rolls have been losing their joie de vivre of late and while we were taking a break over a lovely pineapple daiquiri (made with real honey), she mentioned that there was the poor gang of men up in the backwoods of Oregon who are in desperate need of snacks and entertainment. Well, I am the charitable sort, so I told Normy we must do something to help. I called up the lovely Korean family who were so helpful with the living nativity and they offered to lend me one of their food trucks for a few weeks. It didn’t take long for Normy and I to find ourselves barreling up I-5 in the ‘Kimchi Kitchen’ with a supply of Funyuns and Cheetos and a number of fetching tap costumes in which I could dazzle them all with a few routines on the roof while they satisfy their hunger.
Now I am not entirely certain how food trucks operate as I have never eaten at one. The Ivy does not serve from the side of a converted motorhome. So, while Normy drove us north, I took a look at the various built in kitchen gadgets which just seemed to be in the way. I much prefer my idea of handing out food in those hygienic little foil bags. Still, I thought I had better learn a little bit about my new environs so I got out my handy new iPad with the Wi-Fi Netflix connection and searched through it until I found the movie Chef from last year written, directed and starring Jon Favreau. Favreau leapt into prominence in the early 90s with Swingers and became a bit of a fixture in ensemble pieces during that decade. He then made the switch to behind the camera as a producer and director where he has had even greater success, particularly with the Iron Man films, one franchise that got comic book movies right.
Chef is obviously a labor of love on the part of Mr. Favreau. And it is possible to draw parallels between the character of Carl Casper, the titular chef, and his fall and rise and that of Mr. Favreau who stepped away from big studio pictures and politics to make this little independent film. The plot, such as it is, is pretty basic stuff. Carl Casper was once the hottest up and coming chef in Miami. He ended up selling out to a name restaurant run by the nebbishy Riva (Dustin Hoffman) where his attempts to spice up the menu are met with resistance. When an important food critic (Oliver Platt) trashes his cooking, a social media war breaks out which leads to confrontations, reprisals and problems in Casper’s home life with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and young son with the somewhat improbable name of Percy (Emjay Anthony). Soon, Casper is at rock bottom, restoring a food truck thanks to the generosity of his ex-wife’s ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr. having some fun), and he, Percy and his old sous-chef (John Leguizamo) hit the road selling Cubano sandwiches to the masses and, if you can’t figure out where this is going to end up, you’ve never seen a movie.
The whole thing ends up being a veritable cassoulet of a film, with multiple ingredients thrown in the pot and let stew. This can be a dangerous exercise, but fortunately, Favreau the director is an assured filmmaker who manages to get his ingredients relatively right. The film is part road trip comedy, part one man against the system polemic and part food porn epic in the tradition of Big Night or Babette’s Feast. Food is the central image and metaphor for life and the camera lingers on finely chopped vegetables, sizzling meats, and lovingly cooked dishes in such a way that you can practically smell them. I don’t know if Favreau can cook in his private life, but he is filmed in such a way that we completely buy Casper’s talents in the kitchen. The multiple pounds he has gained since his heyday twenty years ago also work to his advantage. Who trusts a skinny chef?
This little feel good movie is helped out by various big names having fun in small parts. (It’s Favreau’s movie and journey all the way and no one else seems to have more than ten minutes of screen time). I assume they’re around on the hopes that if they make nice, they’ll get a part in his next blockbuster as I doubt they were paid much more than scale for this project, but the presence of Hoffman and Platt and Downey elevate the project way above the average indie. Robert Downey Jr, in particular, effortlessly steals his few scenes, toys with them and us, and then tosses them back leaving us wanting a whole lot more of him. The screenplay is serviceable, if not overly distinguished. I will give it props in one department; it actually depicts and finds ways to visualize our social media driven world in a lucid manner. Twitter, in particular, is a major plot device and those little blue birds make a fun cameo.
At the end of the movie, we all learn that the road to happiness involves a food truck, a road trip down I-10 and a twelve-year-old with a smartphone. Normy and I are using I-5 instead and we are missing the tween. Perhaps we can pick one up on the way when we stop in Fresno for gas. Chef may never join the pantheon of great cinematic achievements, but it’s enjoyable, well made and will make you hungry.
Shirred eggs with caviar. Whole hog butchering. Gratuitous Scarlett Johansson. Flame wars. Testicular corn starch. Mugging Miami cop. Grease traps. Barbecued butts.
Originally from Seattle Washington, land of mist, coffee and flying salmon, Mrs. Norman Maine sprang to life, full grown like Athena, from Andy’s head during a difficult period of life shortly after his relocation to Alabama.