Chef and Conflict: The Dramatic Imperative

chef conflictThere 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.

Chef conflictI 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.

Chef ConflictNow, 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.

chef conflictBig 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.

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

12 thoughts on “Chef and Conflict: The Dramatic Imperative

  1. This movie drove me nuts. I so wanted to love it, and I felt good for most of the minutes I was watching it. At the same time, my desperation for something — anything — to happen caused me to be so frustrated that by the last “happily ever after” scene, I didn’t like the characters anymore. After an hour, after the conversation with his son about the burnt sandwich, they could have slapped a big “And they all lived happily ever after! Now sit back and watch an hour of the happily ever after.” You are spot on about the lack of conflict, though for me, it just made me upset that I spent my $6. And disclaimer: I love Jon Favreau.

    • I feel your pain. But featuring Tired of Being Alone on the soundtrack does go a long way toward easing that pain.

  2. and interesting film in regards conflict is the last one made by Richard Curtis, About Time. I really don’t know how I feel about it myself. Its very sweet, nicely witty, beautiful locations, gorgeous people. In many ways I think of it like the live action brochure for a perfect life.. but there is no real conflict.. which given the power the mc has sort of bugged me. I kept waiting for something.. more.. It left me oddly dissatisfied for a film all about the perfect life.

    • There was a recent post about movies that use repetition which explored similar terrain. I don’t disagree with your description of About Time, and I thought Domhnall Gleeson was rather good. But how invested can you really allow yourself to be when you know there is no real permanence to most of what your are watching? Curtis invented an ending which was designed to address that issue by offering that some things were beyond changing, but the fact is, most of what we watched was practice and as such, seemed far less immediate. That for me, contributed to the problem you are noting.

      • Totally agree. That was definitely another problem with About Time: It was like a travelogue of someone’s life, with very little conflict. On the other hand, I was watching Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night on TCM last night, and I was surprised to discover that it didn’t have much conflict, either – yet it worked. It was basically The Beatles running around, reeling off one-liners and playing music. Conflict was relegated to the likes of “we can’t find them — and the show’s going on in 20 minutes,” and despite that it remained as fresh as ever.

  3. Great review, great questions. Gotta have conflict. Yes, I agree. How can you care for the characters if they aren’t in any situation to measure how well/bad they reacted to it?

    • Thanks Cindy. I guess it comes down to a question of degree – especially in the formulaic world of today’s movies, when we just know that the hero will be subjected to some sort of physical or emotional torture test. How do you strike the right balance? I admire Favreau’s attempt to invert normal dramatic structure as he does, but I’m not sure it really works as well as it could have.

  4. Good review, Jon. You’re completely on point about conflict — and bacon, for that matter. I haven’t seen Chef yet, but it does seem to be fairy tale-esque, from what you describe. Yet that doesn’t necessarily preclude it from being enjoyable. Perhaps a close comparison — without the culinary credentials — could be Ninotchka, which, despite a surplus of conflict, seems to glide along mostly via its glorious, happy mood. Perhaps that’s a saving grace of Chef, too.

    • I suppose comedies have their own set of criteria for conflict, Simon. I think that between Design for Living and To Be or Not To Be, Lubitsch tended toward lighter fare. I’ve always thought that was because he was just so damn happy to be out of Germany during those years, but I could be wrong about that.

  5. I have to say that your review seems to confirm my trepidations about this kind of film Jon. Everyone is just too nice, too lucky, and reality seems an afterthought. But as I haven’t seen it, I will take your good review on board.
    ‘Big Night’ is a firm favourite of mine, as is ‘Babette’s Feast, if we are talking ‘food’ films. As for conflict and drama, life is mostly conflict after all…
    (Still not 100% on those Moon landings by the way…)
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Liking both Cuban and American soul music goes a long way toward making Chef as entertaining as it is, so if you are fan, Pete, you will almost certainly be entertained. But I’ll still take Louis Prima and Big Night.

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