“Begin Again,” oh “Chef” – Two Films About Keeping It Simple, Stupid (Sort of)

Better late than never, right? I finally got around to seeing two films that have been in theaters for a bit (especially Chef, which opened in May), and found that they shared similar themes. Turned off by the usual bloated blockbuster fare (which has led to lower-than-hoped-for box office returns)? Perhaps these two simpler stories can entice you back to the cinema again. Neither are great masterpieces, but they entertain with charming stories and likable characters, and without massive explosions (imagine that).

Begin Again

Begin Again (John Carney, 2013)

Written and directed by John Carney, who also wrote and directed the surprise 2006 hit (in indie terms) Once (since turned into a Broadway musical), Begin Again sells the virtues of not selling out and staying true to one’s artistic vision. Perhaps Mr. Carney has some concerns about his own career trajectory, but if that is what has motivated him, at least he has put those concerns into a sweet story of fall and redemption, with another almost-romance at its center, where two people in need of a fresh start meet not-so-cute, find mutual attraction, and make each other’s lives better without falling into the sack. Put like that, it sounds just like the plot of Once, in fact, except that this time, we’re in New York, rather than Dublin.

Keira Knightley plays Gretta, a songwriter (and sometimes singer) – whose rising-rock-star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5, perfect for the part) has just ditched her on his way up – who meets Dan (Mark Ruffalo, charismatically rumpled, as always), an alcoholic former hot-shot music producer whose luck has completely run out. In spite of his lack of assets, Dan convinces Gretta to let him produce an album of her songs, to be recorded live on the streets of New York, rather than in a studio (since he doesn’t have access to one, anyway). He manages to put together a band of decent backup players, and off they go. Along the way, we meet Dan’s estranged wife and daughter, who look initially askance at his redemptive effort, but eventually buy into it. We also glimpse Gretta’s ex, Dave, as he releases his own – overly produced and mastered – album, by way of contrast. Of course, Gretta’s music is purer, as is her surprise decision, at the end, of what to do with it.

Except that, as lovely as the movie and central characters are, the problem with the film is that Gretta’s music is not that pure. We spend a lot of time with Ruffalo in the beginning as he listens to demo CDs sent his way, ranting about how bad they are, and so are primed to expect better from the songs he creates with Gretta. So it’s a bit of a disappointment when we hear how ultimately ordinary (and overly produced-sounding) they turn out to be. Still, there are a few moments in the film where Knightley – an actress I generally do not enjoy, yet very much do here – surprises us with the sweetness of her voice as she sings acoustic versions of her character’s compositions. Would that Carney had stuck with those recordings. Nevertheless, Begin Again turns out to be a genuinely pleasurable experience, and a welcome reprieve from the Bayhem madness of 2014.

Chef

Chef (Jon Favreau, 2014)

Chef is another film about someone deciding to simplify his life in the aftermath of a major crisis. Written and directed by writer/actor-turned-director Jon Favreau, who started with the cult hit Swingers, in 1996, and then rose to the top of the Hollywood pyramid with Iron Man and Iron Man 2, before making the box-office and critical flop Cowboys & Aliens in 2011. Chef is the first feature he has directed since that particular fiasco, and in it he seems to be trying to return to the days when he wrote character-based stories that were not heavily dependent on special effects. The result is a likable, if slight, dramedy (heavier on the comedy than drama) that, like Begin Again, may not stay with you for long after you see it, but which offers a pleasant enough diversion while you’re watching it. Be forewarned however: do not go into the movie hungry, or you might not make it to the end of the screening, as food and cooking is in abundance, and very tempting, indeed.

Favreau (always an enjoyable screen presence) plays Carl Casper, a divorced father of one and celebrity chef in Los Angeles, who one day loses his cool over a negative review from top food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt, doing his thing). He confronts said food critic at his table, and the filmed confrontation (smartphones and social media play a big role in the story) goes viral. Suddenly, Chef Carl is out of a job. So his loving ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara, playing a variation on her “Modern Family” role), invites him to tag along on a trip to see her father in Miami, ostensibly so he can finally have some time with the son, Percy (Emjay Anthony, cute), he rarely sees. Carl soon figures out that she is also scheming to set him up in a food truck owned by ex-husband #1 (Robert Downey, Jr: Iron Man, himself), an idea the two of them had once discussed when still together. Soon, sous chef pal Martin (John Leguizamo, also doing his thing) flies out to join them, and before you know it, the two men and Percy (with mom’s permission) are off on a road trip across America to recapture the essence of what makes food important. As a metaphor for retooling the mechanics of storytelling in the face of big-budget disaster, it’s perfect.

It’s also a little pat, and once the road trip starts, a little simple. How do they get permits to sell everywhere? How can they constantly find such great ingredients everywhere? Isn’t riding as a passenger in a food truck, without seats or safety blest, dangerous, especially for a little kid? Well, sure, these are important questions, but it’s also possible to just forget about verisimilitude for a bit and enjoy the ride. Favreau, Leguizamo, Anthony and Vergara (when she’s around) are such fun performers, with great chemistry, and the food looks so scrumptious, that it seems almost a shame to quibble over details. And it’s hard to argue with a film that promotes family unity and love as a central message. So, if possible, leave the cynicism at home, sit back and enjoy the tasty repast. You may be hungry for something more substantial, later, but in the meantime, it’s a hell of a snack.

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