Imagine ordering a lovely bit of fish. The cod is succulent and the batter crisp, the chips chunky and golden. But as you chew on your third bite, you become aware of another taste. Wait a minute… isn’t that…. heroin? Yep, the food is drenched in finely powdered Afghan smack.
So it is with Jon Favreau’s latest offering, the feel-good comedy “Chef”. The scent of an all-star cast lures you in: Dustin Hoffman gets an airing, Scarlett Johannson’s lips pout beguilingly, Robert Downey Jr. and the positively irresistible Joh Leguizamo provide some added cool. Like fish and chips, he plot is simple and tasty (and just as imaginative). Carl Casper (Favreau) cooked his way up into the kitchen of a swish LA restaurant, but he’s creatively stifled by his boss (Hoffman). Having to choose between his well-paid job and his integrity, he walks out and re-discovers his cooking roots, while bonding with his young son and his estranged wife, the rather delicious Latina vixen Sofia Vergara.
So far, so good. The film is appetisingly shot and features a set accomplished performances, with Leguizamo – the undoubted star, at least for this reviewer – nailing his character with an enticing mix of sincerity, sexiness and good, old-fashioned simple-mindedness. (Was is Sacha Baron Cohen who coined the phrase “blow job lips”? He must have been thinking of JL).
It could all have ended so well if it weren’t for the film being saturated with product placements. Soon into the flick, it becomes apparent that we’re watching a 90 minute commercial by Twitter and Apple. The digital native pre-pubescent son teaches his retard dad how to use Twitter to his advantage – from then on, the plot is moved along by 140 character messages and every event, notable or not, involves an iPhone or an iPad. There are phone calls, text messages, tweets, selfies, Vines and one-minute-videos. It’s all rather like a tutorial in Social Media in an Apple store. In one scene, we’re even forced to endure a scripted put-down of a rival smartphone (“Is that a flat screen TV?”). Is Apple feeling the chill of Samsung’s popularity?
It’s all entirely unnecessary. Yes, social media is a big part of life and has its place in the movies. But when this is blatantly sponsored by only two corporations and becomes central to the plot – even though the story could happen quite easily without any tweet being fired into cyberspace – the viewer feels abused.
So, what could have been quite a noteworthy film is irredeemably cheapened by the greed of its makers. And when then audience notices that something’s off, it’s already too late. We’re halfway through and there’s no turning back.
Companies will care little. Time and time again, product placement has proved a potent elixir for sales figures. Absent a ban on the practice – or regulation – the only tool viewers have is to boycott a film they don’t need to see.
“Chef” was one of those – until that scrumptious sous-chef in the hat came along and saved it.
Watch the trailer here.