“Chef,” and why Hollywood needs to make more grilled-cheese sandwiches

CHEF

It’s so hard to ignore the biographical parallels in Jon Favreau’s “Chef” that, by the time Robert Downey, Jr. shows up as a booties-wearing millionaire oddball, it’s clear Favreau is not only acknowledging the connections but having fun with them.

His Chef Carl Casper was once a celebrated renegade chef in Miami, celebrated for his inventiveness and edge. He moved to Los Angeles and hit it big as the chef of a successful, established restaurant. Then, when a critic fillets him for an uninspired offering (chocolate lava cake, oof) and his boss won’t let him cook from his heart, but instead urges him to “play the hits,” he flames out. Only when he goes back to the basics, in this case a humble food truck selling Cuban sandwiches, does he get his mojo back.

Meanwhile, Favreau was a celebrated making of indie films (“Made” and co-writer of “Swingers” — maybe not inventive and edgy but surely satisfying and personal). He hit it big as the director of a successful, established franchise, the first two “Iron Man” series. Then, when his follow-up “Cowboys & Aliens” is a box-office and critical bomb, he goes back to the basics by starring, writing and directing in an indie, “Chef.”

This could have been insufferable if Favreau overtly and seriously made the director-as-chef comparison, but because “Chef” has such a light, agreeable touch, stopping to savor the characters along the way along with the beignets and Austin barbecue, it’s forgivable and even winning.

But I think Favreau is making a more subtle point about the current business of moviemaking with “Chef,” and where it may have gone wrong. The key for me actually comes in a mid-closing credits scenes, shot during filming, in which chef Roy Choi (who taught Favreau how to cook for the film) is teaching him how to make a grilled-cheese sandwich.

The perfect grilled cheese sandwich. It’s a hilarious scene, as Choi describes the intensity and focus he brings to two slices of bread, several kinds of cheese, and butter. “This is everything,” he says to Favreau, pointing to the sandwich. “And if it goes wrong, everything else around it will suck.”

The studio system that Favreau lives in doesn’t make many grilled-cheese sandwiches any more — small, modest but perfectly-made creations that get everything just right. Instead, Hollywood is more in the business of making those uninspired six-course “play the hits” dinners that Casper had to make in his old job — a sequence of predictable, safe, showy choices. What’s a chocolate lava cake if not a big climactic explosion?

To take the metaphor further, “Cowboys & Aliens” might have worked if it had been a grilled-cheese sandwich, a modest, funny, well-executed Western that just happened to have aliens in it. But a summer blockbuster has to have a big budget, and big stars, and huge IMAX visual effects, and familiar characters and story arcs that audiences around the world are familiar with. And, of course, a big chocolate lava cake explosion at the end.

“Cowboys & Aliens” flopped, while “Chef,” cannily released in May as counterprogramming to the early summer blockbusters, is shaping up to be a very profitable film. It’s not a great film, but it is a satisfying grilled-cheese sandwich when so much at the multiplex is just empty calories.

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