There are people on this planet who believe the Apollo 11 moon landing was faked. There are people who believe Howard the Duck is underrated. There are people who believe bacon is not good. But you know what no one believes? That conflict isn’t the root of drama. That’s the first thing they teach you in drama school. All drama derives from conflict. It is the dramatist’s mantra.
Take a character who wants a glass of water. If she walks into her kitchen and pours herself a glass of water, you don’t have drama. If she walks into her kitchen and opens the refrigerator, and a giant squid-like creature with hooks on the end of his tentacles begins swinging at her thus causing her to flee out of the room and into a parallel universe where gravity has been inverted – OK, now you’ve got some drama. (I have already copyrighted that idea, for any of you looking to make a quick sale to Syfy.)
But is it indeed axiomatic? Can you have drama without conflict?
This began as a review of John Favreau’s new movie Chef. But since I decided I wanted to write about a broader topic, let me take care of the review part quickly. Chef is a wonderfully heart-warming and entertaining movie. It is built around a good theme – how do we continue to pursue our passions when the requirements of real life intrude (some critics have speculated this may be a personal statement from Favreau about his experiences directing films in the Marvel universe) – and it has some very fine humour. As a cinematic experience, the culinary imagery and, maybe even more importantly, the music make this often joyous. As you can probably tell, I thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the theatre and experiencing the story.
And yet, I don’t think this is really anywhere near as successful as several movies built around very similar concepts. I found both Big Night (1996) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) to be far more engrossing films. I think that, just maybe, my reaction is tied to that thing about conflict.
Chef certainly has conflict, but it is very intriguing to watch how Favreau tinkers with traditional dramatic structure. Almost all of the serious conflict comes in the first act, and in what would normally constitute the first half of the second act. Established chef Carl Casper is struggling to create new and exciting dishes. His initial conflict is with his boss, played by Dustin Hoffman, who insists on a traditional menu. Casper gives in and ends up getting a very bad review from an important food critic. The conflict escalates into a war of tweets between Casper and the critic, and ultimately Casper loses his job and his reputation. This sets the stage for his rebirth.
I have just told you the first half of the movie. I have left out many other smaller arguments that Casper has with his ex-wife, co-workers, young son, etc… This is where Favreau does something pretty radical. At the midpoint of the movie, at a time when conflict would typically begin escalating toward an Act II climax, the writer-director essentially ends almost all conflict. There are some very minor arguments – one between Casper and his son, another with a friendly cop in South Beach. There is some mild comic banter with his ex-wife’s other ex-husband. It is all resolved almost immediately and with no lasting impact. From the midpoint on, every time Carl roles the dice, it comes up seven. Every card he flips is an ace.
This run of luck is not incongruous in Chef. Consider for a moment the world the movie inhabits. There are no real bad guys in the movie. The characters with whom Carl has his initial conflicts simply have different points of view. And Carl has several very devoted, wonderful friends. He has an ex-wife who clearly cares very much for him, who goes to great lengths to see to his well-being. He has a best friend who drops a very good job in an upscale restaurant to fly cross-country to be sous-chef on a food truck. He has an extraordinarily mature and forgiving 10 year old son. None of these things are unbelievable. They simply speak to how really nice Chef Carl’s life actually is.
Now, add to that the less believable good fortune. Start with the fact that Carl has two romantic interests in this movie: his ex-wife and the woman who runs the front of the house for him in Dustin Hoffman’s restaurant. One is played by Sofia Vergara and the other by Scarlett Johansson. Yes, life is good for Chef Carl. He also has an ex-father-in-law who is a musician in Miami. He is played by Perico Hernandez. Life is pretty darn excellent actually (Side note – this reminds me a lot of the old Cosby Show, when Theo complained about having to do a report on Shakespeare for school, and neighbourhood friends – and world-class Shakespearean actors – Christopher Plummer and Roscoe Lee Browne just happened to drop by to recite some of the bard). Add to this the fact that his ex-wife is rich and willing to bankroll his new food truck, that his rival ex-husband is willing to supply said truck, that his son is a wizard at social media marketing, and that his friend/sous-chef has connections that can take care of virtually any other need they have, and this begins to feel more like a fairy-tale than a drama.
And please remember, I loved watching this movie. These observations are not intended as criticisms. But here’s the thing. I haven’t seen Big Night in at least ten years and I still remember its final scene in intimate detail. I think it is one of the best and most-affecting finales I have ever seen in a movie. I saw Chef less than twelve hours ago and it is already starting to fade from my memory.
Big Night and Eat Drink Man Woman are born out of pain and disappointment. Unfulfilled dreams and the reality of mortality inform virtually every moment, right up until the end. They both have the sensuality of Chef, though neither has the same abundance of music or humour. In a sense, neither is as entertaining, and yet, I find them to be superior experiences.
Our reaction to movies is highly subjective. Even if there were a way to agree on how a particular movie affects us, we could not agree on its value because we all have different reasons for watching. And , at least in my case, those reasons do not even remain consistent over time. Sometimes I want simply to be entertained. Other times I want to be touched emotionally. Sometimes I want to be challenged. Other times, spoon fed. I suspect that, for me, the fact that Carl Casper does not have to triumph over increasing adversity, will make my opinion of Chef continue to recede, no matter how much I enjoyed watching it.
This issue of conflict is not a toggle switch. It is not a question of a story having conflict or not having conflict. Chef, as I’ve noted, does. It just doesn’t have very much, and its conflict is structured in a very non-traditional way. To me, the best example of a movie with limited conflict but lasting impact is Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988), among the finest children’s films ever made. As in Chef, there are no real bad guys, and there is very limited conflict. But what conflict there is comes toward the end and does increase. It works wonderfully. And yet, New York Times critic Stephen Holden described it as “so relentlessly goody-goody that it crosses the line from sweet into saccharine.” Which only goes to prove my initial point: moon landings, movies about talking ducks, bacon, Totoro… it is hard to reach total agreement on anything. Except conflict. You gotta have conflict.