The big question of this movie weekend is not how much Amazing Spider-Man 2 will drop (a normal-to-large amount) or how well Neighbors will do (probably pretty well). No, I’m left wondering how in holy hell both the cheapo Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return (which looks like a third-rate direct-to-DVD movie) and the starless Moms’ Night Out are both managing wide releases this weekend when seemingly/nominally higher ticket items have gotten dumped into the market. Last weekend, for example, brought Walk of Shame, a much-delayed Elizabeth Banks comedy that received a 50-screen release simultaneous with its VOD debut. Obviously Banks never became as big a star as she should have been, but a broad romantic comedy with Banks and perpetual Guy In These Movies James Marsden was obviously not greenlit with an eye toward iTunes rentals. Most likely it was only released theatrically at all because of contractual obligations, which explains the even quieter and tinier release of Gambit, a Cameron Diaz/Colin Firth remake of the Shirley MacLaine/Michael Caine heist movie that slipped into theaters with Diaz’s The Other Woman, and not long after Firth’s The Railway Man, obviously hoping to either piggyback on those stars’ pre-existing PR commitments for movies that have a fighting commercial chance, or simply disappear without a trace—most likely the latter masquerading as the former.
Obviously the respective studios that released Walk of Shame and Gambit were holding their noses and getting it over with (even though Gambit, at least, isn’t half-bad, boasting a minor but funny screenplay by the Coen Brothers). But Chef, Jon Favreau’s back-to-basics passion project, is a less obvious candidate for obscurity. Of course, obscurity isn’t the goal of the movie’s limited initial release. The idea is to build word of mouth, like what happened with Favreau’s Swingers (which Doug Liman directed from his screenplay) and, to a much lesser extent, Made (his first, pre-blockbuster directorial feature). But Chef is a Favreau movie in the wake of his two Iron Man pictures and Elf, among others, and he was able to assemble a handful of Avengers to help him out: Robert Downey, Jr., has a very small role, Scarlett Johansson has a less-small role, and even the non-Avengers cast has plenty of familiar faces: Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman, Bobby Canavale and Oliver Platt (taking his brother’s real-life role as a food critic). It’s not as if Swingers or Made are Under the Skin or even Spring Breakers in terms of experimentalism, for that matter, but Chef has been engineered for feel-good mainstream appeal. If anything, it seems a little too broad and mindlessly pleasant for the think-y arthouse crowd. Then again, said crowd has turned John Turturro’s baffling and low-key Fading Gigolo into something of a minor hit. Open Road, the studio behind Chef, is obviously trying to give its smaller-scale movie a delicate roll-out, though I wonder if six screens in all of the US is really the treatment this movie needs.
What may give Chef some possibly accidental arthouse cred is the fact that Favreau, who even in smaller mode tends toward meat-and-potatoes, allows his story to wander all over the place. He plays a chef who has lost his way and neglects his kid, but it’s not a simple rise-and-fall-and-rise narrative. The chef neglects his kid but is also great at his job, and maintains a friendly relationship with his ex-wife. Though he cooks crowd-pleasing food, he yearns to present more experimental dishes—but while he’s not particularly proud of the routine menu he cooks night after night, he still loses his shit and engages in a Twitter (and later, in-person) feud with a mean food blogger. Though he wants to follow his muse away from easy-lay dishes, he gets his mojo back by refurbishing a food truck and cooking decidedly non-experimental Cuban sandwiches.
These myriad plot strands aim, I think, for the eclectic, unpredictable complications and contradictions of life; in practice, they’re actually kind of incoherent. The movie has enough thinly defined characters to deal with before it takes on the Internet, but it does: Twitter plays a pivotal role (to the extent that anyone or anything in the movie does; Twitter has more to do than Johansson or Hoffman), and before his son shows him how to use social media for good, Favreau gets to affect that popular middle-aged pose of a guy who knows nothing about online stuff, has no interest until he’s seduced into stupidity by its very existence. All of this would be easy to overlook if Chef were a little funnier, but honestly, the committee-made Iron Man 2 is a better representation of the comic voice Favreau established in his earliest films. Chef is agreeable, and likable, and pretty warm-hearted despite the Internet stuff. It’s not, though, particularly funny (even Downey’s usual wiseass jabbering feels a little wan).
Regardless of how it turned out, though, I do think Chef is more or less supposed to be that unpretentious, quickly-but-beautifully prepared Cuban sandwich, so I’m not sure what it’s doing on just a handful of screens while the Christian-targeted Moms’ Night Out and next week’s Disney sports drama Million Dollar Arm compete for the title of Most Adult-Oriented Movie at the Multiplex in May. I didn’t think much of Chef, but then, I’m happy to see some sci-fi and superhero movies; maybe the can’t-movies-be-nice crowd would appreciate seeing this now, not in three to six weeks.