Onur Tukel is a writer, director and illustrator. His films include Black Magic for White Boys, The Misogynists, Catfight, Summer of Blood, Applesauce and Ding-a-ling-LESS. His children’s books Help!!! There’s an Elephant in My House, Little Friends and Rainstack! are out there somewhere.
At first, I was really excited to review Jon Favreau’s new film, Chef. I’ve always liked Favreau. In college, my friends and I adored Swingers (which he wrote and starred in). The lovable assholes in that movie reminded us of ourselves. Plus, it was a low-budget movie that Miramax bought for millions of dollars at a time when indie movies were sought-after commodities. It inspired me to make my own movies.
I also loved the idea that Favreau was returning to his “indie roots” after directing huge Hollywood juggernauts like Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Zathura and Cowboys & Aliens. This is a man who understands the value of independent filmmaking. He understands why lower budgets and creative control allow one to express a more unique point of view. “Surely, Favreau’s going to make something personal here,” I thought. “I’m looking forward to reviewing this movie.”
And Chef does feel personal. That’s why I’m so conflicted about reviewing it.
In the film, Favreau plays Carl Casper, a popular chef at a successful high-end restaurant. He’s passionate about his job. He takes great pride in the meals he prepares. He loves his work. He loves his staff. He’s an artist in every way. Early on, a famous food blogger/critic named Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) visits the restaurant and writes a scathing review of the meal Casper prepares. This isn’t just a bad review, it’s downright nasty. And Casper becomes obsessed with it. He eventually confronts Michel to give him a piece of his mind.
It’s a funny scene. Favreau completely loses his shit in a crowded restaurant. His nostrils are flaring, his eyes are bulging, his countenance crazed. “I work hard at my job,” he shouts at Michel, like a volcano erupting. “You sit back smugly and shit all over my work! I have feelings! It hurts, man. It hurts!” This is NOT the dialogue, but it’s the overall sentiment. And Favreau’s right. Bad reviews do hurt.
Last month, I was lucky enough to premiere my new movie, Summer of Blood, at the Tribeca Film Festival. It felt wonderful to read nice reviews from The New Yorker, New York Times, Village Voice, and various online publications like bloodydisgusting.com. But holy shit, when I read nasty reviews, it crushed me. I mean, it stung! It felt personal, like a betrayal of the heart. I found myself HATING those reviewers. Not only that, I found myself stalking the reviewers on Facebook. I needed a physical photo at which to direct my hate. That’s some sad, self-absorbed, somewhat psychotic behavior, I know. But there was a friend in the room too, mocking me with amusement as I leered at their profile pictures. So don’t picture me doing this alone like a seething madman, planning an assassination.
So I’m watching Chef, and here’s Favreau (as Casper) tearing into Platt (as Michel), and I’m thinking, “Shit, I know how you feel.” If I’d had a chance to confront the critics who decimated my work, I might have done the same thing.
As I continued watching, though, something dreadful occurred to me. Hmmm, if I don’t like this movie, how am I going to diss it? I don’t want to be the bad guy. I don’t want to be Ramsey Michel.
I have sympathy with Favreau. It does take a lot of work to be a chef (filmmaker). And bad reviews fucking hurt!
After the movie, as I walked from Midtown to SoHo to catch the J train, I convinced myself that that’s all bullshit. Criticism is part of the industry. Sure, it may seem personal and unfair, even mean. But when you put your art out there, being rebuked is part of process. After reading bad reviews of Summer of Blood, I got it in my head that the critics were just “jealous” because they couldn’t “do what I’ve done.” That’s some deluded shit, I know, but one isn’t rational in a frenzied state of self-importance. The simple fact is that they wrote those reviews because they thought my movie sucked. They aren’t bad guys. And no critic should ever be a bad guy. If you don’t like something, them’s the breaks.
But that’s easy for me to say. I’m not Jon Favreau. I haven’t made $100 million movies like Cowboys & Aliens opening on close to 4000 screens in the peak of summer. There’s a lot riding on the press you receive for something like that. And if bad press threatens box-office revenue, it’s in the director’s best interest to stymie it. It makes sense. It’s a business. I certainly don’t want to thwart any potential business for Chef. Then again, I don’t want to endorse something I don’t like. And I find it way more insulting to see critics give good reviews to mediocre movies than the opposite. Do you remember Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? I saw that shit opening day. When I left the movie theater, I was fuming. It was so bad, it offended me. Most of the reviews of that movie were positive. That still flummoxes the living shit out of me!
So, fuck it. I’m going to give my honest assessment of Chef.
But is that even possible?
How can one be honest while reviewing a movie?
There are so many factors that skew an opinion.
1. I saw Chef at 10am, hung over and hungry. I’m a night owl. I’m cranky as hell in the morning. I’m way crankier when I’m hungry. And this is a movie about food!
2. It was a press screening with a dozen viewers or so. Had I seen the movie with a film festival audience, laughing at every joke the way festival audiences do, my reaction would have been different. Chef did win the audience award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Audiences obviously approve.
3. I’m a struggling filmmaker who can barely pay my rent. I’m watching a multi-million dollar movie (featuring A-list movie stars) made by a powerful millionaire who has the nerve to say he’s “returning to his indie roots.” It’s safe to say I’ll have some jealousy issues here.
So if I can’t be honest, how do I review this?
Fuck it. I’ll use a gimmick.
I’ll treat this movie like a food review. That seems appropriate. That’s a big part of the movie. Sure, the core of the story is about a father bonding with his son, but if you take out all the cooking montages, I swear to God Chef would be a short film.
So movie review as food review. Let’s, um….do this?
Shot well. Edited well. Nice production design. All that shit. It’s a multi-million dollar movie and Favreau knows how to direct. It’s solid. And I like that he’s not flashy or unnecessarily stylistic with the visuals. He’s efficient.
Flavor and temperature.
It’s warm. It’s sweet. It’s like the molten fudge center of a moist chocolate cake. It’s the story of a workaholic father reconnecting with his son, for fuck’s sake. What’s not to like?
Overall enjoyability of the meal.
I read somewhere that you can measure a person’s intelligence by how often they order things on a menu they’ve never tried before. Before I read that, I always ordered the same thing. Chicken Pad Thai at the Thai restaurant. Chicken Burrito at the Mexican restaurant. Three-piece chicken combo at Popeye’s. Now, I’m more adventurous with my menu selections, because I want to be more intelligent, though I’m pretty sure that’s not how intelligence works. Regardless, with Chef, I feel like I’ve had this meal before. It doesn’t take any risks. It’s an idealistic Horatio Alger success story. Spoiler alert. Chef’s hero loses his job, reinvents himself, then succeeds with flying colors in the time it takes to drive a food truck from Miami to L.A. He wins over his son. He wins back his ex-wife. He wins over the critic that hated his work. By the end of the movie, Casper even gets his own restaurant. All this in less than a fortnight. End of spoiler alert. I couldn’t identify with it, and the reason is simple. I’m not a winner. I’m not successful. There’s a reason why the main character in Summer of Blood (played by me) is a loser. That’s how I see myself. But it makes perfect sense that Favreau would make a movie like Chef. He’s in the Hollywood 1 percent. He’s a winner.
I’m sure Chef was financially in the black before Favreau shot one frame. There’s an entire subplot in the film based around the social media platforms Twitter and Vine. I’m not complaining. If Twitter gave me a ton of money to weave them into my movie, I’d sign the contract in my own blood. Chef features Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr., for crying out loud. That’s 40% of the fucking Avengers. It will probably make $10 million from fanboys alone. Cooking shows are more popular than ever. Cable has turned the chef into a rock star. Basing a movie around this subculture is a smart move. Favreau knows what he’s doing. He’s an intelligent, fascinating guy. I’ve listened to his 90-minute interview on Marc Maron’s podcast WTF twice! With Chef, Favreau’s cooked a up a bouillabaisse of lucrative ingredients. And that’s the problem. It all feels like an exercise in film economics. You used to be money, Favreau! Now, it’s all you think about.
Today’s indie movies aren’t being made by the winners. And they aren’t selling for millions of dollars. The indie directors I know are working other jobs and scraping together whatever funds they can to make their skewed, expressive, neurotic, ridiculous, inventive and extremely personal movies. Their films aren’t opening in 1000 theaters or even 100 theaters. They’re lucky to open in one. Hollywood doesn’t seem interested. They want to continue serving consumers the same dishes they’ve served for years. It’s the same faces and the same stories and the same happy endings. It’s the same menu, basically. If it works, why change it?
Yet it doesn’t make any sense to me. Given the collective uneasiness about the future, you’d think audiences would have an easier time identifying with the misfits, losers and weirdos of today’s current crop of indie movies. I know I do.
Illustration by Onur Tukel