This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar questions.

Chef-Movie

I recently saw the movie “Chef”—written, directed by, produced by, and starring Jon Favreau, now in theaters. Favreau plays Chef Carl Casper, who ten years ago was a hot young gastronomic talent but has settled in as the featured attraction at an upscale Los Angeles restaurant. He’s been repeating the same tried and true recipes for years, encouraged to do so by Riva, the restaurant owner, who doesn’t want customers ruffled by innovative fare. Carl creates a new menu he intends to use in order to impress influential food critic Ramsey MIchel (Oliver Plait) who was one of his early boosters. Riva pressures him to stay with his “greatest hits” during Ramsey’s visit, and Carl complies. Eating this unoriginal fare, Ramsey rightly concludes that Carl is stuck in a rut and writes a scathing review.

Stung, Carl is mortified to learn from his 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) that the negative review has been seen by thousands on Twitter. Carl is divorced from Percy’s mom, and has put Percy on the back burner, so to speak, so he could focus on his cooking. Asked for help and hoping for a closer relationship with his dad, Percy agrees to set up a Twitter account for Carl, who wants to read responses the review. Further disturbed by people’s derision of him, Carl impulsively picks an online fight with Ramsey. This eventually results in a blow-up with Riva, then a rant that is recorded by restaurant patrons and becomes a viral video. Humiliated, broke, and out of a job, Carl is adrift. He says, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve never not known what to do.”

As Carl sees it, he was happy with his life until these complications arose. The women around him—his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and the restaurant’s hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson)—tell him otherwise, that he hasn’t been happy for some time. Midlife often brings about this sort of situation. We’ve constructed a life that seems successful. We tell ourselves we are happy with it, even while others who know us well think otherwise. Then something happens, and we discover we aren’t happy after all. The movie suggests, I think accurately, that we can’t be trusted to honestly answer inquiries about our own happiness. We have too much at stake. Those who observe us over time can more reliably gauge our satisfaction with life.

At a loss, Carl considers a suggestion from Inez that he take over a run-down food truck owned by Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.), another ex-husband. Aided by Percy and his former line chef Martin (John Leguizamo), Carl sets up his kitchen in the truck. The three of them then take a joyful cross-country jaunt, selling Cuban sandwiches to eager hordes called forth, pied-piper-like, by Percy’s tweets.

Carl succeeds, in other words, when he gets away from Riva, the uptight boss, and Ramsey, the acerbic critic. We all have people like this in our lives, but they aren’t easy to get away from, because they are found not only around us, but inside us.

As with Carl, we get cautious after a while. We’ve figured out something that seems to work—why not just stick with it? Riva discourages Carl from innovating by reminding him of past failures. Remember when you put organ meat on the menu? Nobody ordered it. Don’t risk that sort of mistake again. Carl probably complies because his inner dialogue offers the same cautions. So he experiments with new dishes in a protected environment–his own kitchen–but serves the same old fare to the customers. Whatever our area of endeavor, we are tempted to keep our new ideas to ourselves but serve up to others what is safe—and bland.

But we aren’t happy, because the other side, the critic who expects us to do more, also resides within us. Carl’s fury at Ramsey probably has the intensity it does because at some level he recognizes the truth of Ramsey’s critique. He eventually admits this, saying “I could have done better. I should have cooked the s**t I was going to cook.” All the while that we are churning out the same insipid stuff, we, too, realize that we are cowards for shunning the allure and danger of invention.

In taking over the food truck, Carl sides unequivocally with invention. It works out beautifully—the road trip at the end of the movie is pretty much all great food, upbeat music, and eager customers. In real life, we don’t always succeed when we take risks, and, even if the risk pays off, there is often a cost. Do we continue on at that point or turn back to the cramped confines of the safe harbor we left? In my life, I’ve mostly made the more risky choice, but at the time it was never an easy decision.