I saw the movie Chef last night. It was fun; there were a lot of things to like about it. At the same time, it wasn’t exactly filling; I don’t know if I’ll remember it much a year from now, and I wouldn’t re-watch it.
There is, to be clear, a lot to like about Chef. Probably highest on my list was was the food. It is, as one critic described, food porn. And it’s well done. There are luscious meals constantly whipping across the screen. There’s the sound of sizzling, and close-up shots of frying, grilling, succulent meat and tender vegetables. I made sure to eat beforehand, but I was still hungry afterwards.
There are other things Chef does well. The music is great, and carries the visuals well. And, as Noah Gittel writes over at the Atlantic, it has a better, and perhaps more balanced portrayal of social media than you might see in most movies. I particularly liked how tweets were visualised; they were clear, readable, and not too distracting – but at the same time you weren’t craning over someone’s shoulder to read grainy pixels stretched over a big screen. The father-son relationship is nice too; you genuinely care about how that interaction will go, which lends a little more depth to a movie that otherwise would probably be about a guy making delicious sandwiches.
But for all that, Chef is a fluffy movie. Fun, but not something I’ll feel particularly strongly about a month or a year from now. Partially it’s because it sets out to be fluffy, I think. The movie outlines different relationships, different struggles, but nothing’s in too much depth. The protagonist is struggling with being fired and rejected? Give it a few seconds, and bam! Scene change. Now you’re in Miami. Probably the most obvious example for me is a scene where the father/chef gives his son a chef’s knife. It feels a little weighty for what’s come before and after, and there’s a sense that the filmmaker is earnestly saying ‘You have to take this seriously. The. Father. Is. Giving. His. Son. A. Talisman.’, as though somehow putting a father, a son, and the giving of a chef’s knife will magically invoke significance, rather than it being dependent on the story and the relationships the movie’s built (which are much too flimsy to carry that scene). Because you know what? We don’t see that knife for the rest of the movie.
I watched a good two-thirds of the movie waiting for the son to hurt himself in the truck. It was touched on lightly – he burns his finger, but pushes through – but beyond that, there’s nothing. I kept thinking that there’d be more, more narrative tension, some kind of critical turning point. There wasn’t, really. Things just happened, randomly, light-heartedly. In a way it was kind of fun, but felt slightly hollow at the same time; without a challenge, it was hard to know if I cared that much.
The final scene, for me, was extraordinary [MILD SPOILER ALERT; but, as I said, narrative’s certainly not what’s driving this movie, so I don’t know why you’d care]. Throughout the movie the chef/protagonist is seen flirting with the head of his wait staff (and there’s a hint of a history), and there’s some degree of his interaction with his ex-wife.
And then bam! In the final scene, after he’s been given his own restaurant through a deus almost-ex machina, he’s getting re-married to his ex-wife. Which is lovely, and a perfectly plausible ending; but because we barely saw any of how he got there, it seemed slightly disconnected; like if it had suddenly cut to a shot of his grandkids by a different woman working in the food truck, a generation later. Either of those might have seemed equally plausible.
So, overall, fun, but not filling.