I wasn’t expecting much when I took in Jon Favreau’s latest effort as writer/director, mostly due to the inevitable clichés I would have to swallow. And it didn’t “disappoint” in this regard, Favreau’s schlubby chef, Carl, being ridiculously talented and his love interests played by the physically and emotionally bouncy Sofia Vergara and the absurdly cast Scarlett Johansson. And then there was Dustin Hoffman, spewing spittle all over the kitchen as his demanding boss. As expected from the film’s unsubtle trailer, after his kitchen creativity is stymied Carl walks out on the job and starts selling food from a truck on a road trip that gains notoriety on Twitter for his perfect Cuban sandwiches, thanks to the internet savvy of his young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony).
If a lot of this sounds cliché, it is. But at a certain point the food took over, as it must in a satisfying food film, and the more interesting sub-plot of the relationship between the tough-love Carl and Percy pressed against the seams of its predictability, culminating in a surprisingly moving montage of one-second video clips from their road trip edited together by Percy into a short movie. Damn if that montage wasn’t moving and heartfelt and, quite literally, the stuff great films are made of. In fact, that montage took me back to a month earlier when I had re-visited Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece City Lights (1931). No, I am not comparing the director of Swingers to the director of The Gold Rush. But the sweet montage that Favreau caps his film with taps into the same reservoir of feeling, the same swelling in one’s heart that should and must occur during the final scene in City Lights, when the formerly blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) suddenly realizes that it was the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) who was her benefactor after she feels his hands and touches his face. He looks at her shyly and filled with love. “Now you can see?” She gazes back at him in wonder and with love, too, that starts to grow. “Yes, now I can see.”
Seeing, of course, not only physically but also the truth, realizing how wrong she was to judge him by his physical appearance. That the film fades out immediately makes the scene even more powerful: What will happen to these two? There could have been a whole other film: Cut to one year later, The Tramp is working alongside his love in their flower shop, the Tramp mucking things up but everything coming out all right in the end.
So if you haven’t seen Chef, give it a shot, you may be pleasantly surprised. And if you haven’t seen City Lights (available from the public library and out in new Blu-ray from Criterion), definitely give that a shot. For a silent film, it has an awful lot to say.