Summer movies have a deservedly bad name, typically falling into one of three categories: Big and dumb, with lots of shiny objects and loud explosions; sleazy and porny, with plenty of jiggling women and scenes of vomiting teenagers; and cheesy and weepy, with handsome actors rescuing heroines from marriages that have gone stale.
Have I missed anything?
The decline of Hollywood films has a lot to do with the sinking educational assets both of the presumed audience and of the people greenlighting the films. While I was getting my MFA in screenwriting — there’s a degree you don’t want to let your kids pursue — I learned from my highbrow, European-trained teacher Andrew Horton that movies used to be made by middle-aged people who’d grown up reading the Great Books in high school and attending smart Broadway plays. The result was films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, Nothing Sacred, and The Third Man.
The next generation of filmmakers grew up not so much reading as watching movies — albeit intelligent movies such as those four. These producers and directors went on to make films like The Godfather, After Hours, E.T., and Star Wars — films which were still smart, but lacked the moral compass once infused by the lessons of literature, and enforced by the Hollywood Production Code. The people who grew up on Star Wars and Jaws — but even more on The Six Million Dollar Man and Charlie’s Angels — became studio executives at age 23 or so, and approved movies like Die Hard, Fatal Attraction, and Ghost. And now the people whose sensibilities were shaped by that kind of movie (and by Baywatch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, plus thousands of hours logged playing Everquest) are okaying projects like The Lone Ranger, Noah, Saw, and A Million Ways to Die in the West.
Another major factor in the brain freeze in Hollywood has to do with soaring budgets, which must be justified (and often funded in advance) by the sale of foreign rights. Movies need to promise to succeed not just in the United States and Europe, but also to draw in flocks of teenagers in Japan and Indonesia. The next projected Citizen Kane would not survive the youth in Asia.
Knowing all these factors that are dumbing down the movies and pushing the best talent to work instead for the more self-selecting audiences of television and Netflix, I’m always delighted to recommend a movie that flouts the trends. And Chef does just that. It’s a funny, plausible, engaging story that’s told by some of the best actors working today, with small roles potently played by top-line stars including Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, and Robert Downey, Jr. (You can tell that director and star Jon Favreau is good at keeping friends in Hollywood.)
The movie makes canny, realistic observations about the power of social media, the fickleness of “foodies,” and the dangers of having angry massive meltdowns in a world filled with camera phones that can upload one’s tantrums to YouTube, then tweet them as far as the souls in Purgatory. Chef’s respect for the subject matter it covers — professional cooking — is admirable. The film cuts past the sniffy perfectionism that can make food lovers seem ridiculous, and conveys the passion for beauty that motivates genuine craftsmen in the kitchen, who love the ingredients they work with, are grateful for the chance to serve fine food to appreciative eaters, and devote themselves to the hard, attentive work entailed in making memorable meals. As a co-author of twocookbooks, I really appreciated this side of Chef.
But the best thing about Chef has nothing to do with celebrity cameos or fancy food. At its heart, the movie examines something completely primal, and too often ignored by our culture: The fragile, irreplaceable bond between a father and his son — and the ways in which that bond can be cemented by working together. For countless centuries of human history, most fathers did not drop off their sons to be schooled in cognitive excellence by highly trained strangers; instead, they worked with their sons from an early age and taught them the craft they had learned themselves from their own fathers. This experience of shared work helped knit the tie between the generations, and instill in sons a respect for all the sweat by which their fathers won the family’s daily bread. I still treasure the times my father took me along his postman’s route along New York City’s Seventh Avenue — even bringing me backstage and getting me tickets at Carnegie Hall, one of the stops along the route he schlepped for 37 years. (I am equally thankful for America’s social mobility, which meant that I didn’t
have to be a mailman, just because I was born into that caste.)
The protagonist, played with a gruff, Fred Flinstone charm by Jon Favreau, is a man in crisis. His marriage to a gorgeous, smart, good-hearted woman (Sofia Vergara) has collapsed, and he sees his beloved son in brief, harried visits between exhausting bouts of unfulfilling work. He cooks in a restaurant whose menu is stuffed full of clichéd, crowd-pleasing dishes like lava cake — which he lacks the power to improve, since he works as a hired hard. He owns little or nothing. His family has blown into little bits. His love life consists of flirtations with a waitress half his age (albeit, one who looks like Scarlett Johansson).
In other words, he is the iconic postmodern American man. What sets this chef apart is that he decides to do something about it. He sets out to reclaim his self-respect, his economic independence, and the integrity of his family. I won’t spoil the plot by saying how he goes about it, or whether he succeeds. Go find that out for yourself.
Every dad in America should go see Chef — and bring his son. Women who want to understand the problems faced by the men in their lives would also get a lot out of seeing the film. Men, women, and children alike, I think, will greet the ending as did the Manhattan audience who saw the film with me: with a round of surprised and delighted applause.
John Zmirakis co-author of the upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century.