Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Delicious: "Chef's Special" (2009)

The most unfortunate thing about “Chef’s Special” is that it is Spanish, and will forever be compared to the work of Pedro Almodovar. Nacho G. Velilla has created a very funny screwball comedy that stands on its own.

Maxi (Javier Camara) is the head chef in a small restaurant. He has a number of people working for him, including the crazed Ramiro (Fernando Tejero), and unlucky in love maitre d’ Alejandra (Lola Duenas), better known as Alex. Maxi’s life is nothing but chaos as he tries to hold his crew together. The eatery is bleeding money, and his coworkers all let their flawed personal lives affect their work. A former soccer star, Horacio (Benjamin Vicuna), is moving in across the hall from Maxi, and Alex already has her claws out for him. Amidst the chaos, Maxi gets a call from the hospital.

His ex-wife is dying and someone must take care of their children- fifteen year old Edu (Junio Valverde) and six year old Alba (Alejandra Lorenzo). Maxi has no relationship with the kids, but takes them in when their mother passes.

Maxi goes on a date with Alex and Horacio, acting as a chaperone (and leaves Ramiro babysitting the kids, in one of the film’s very funny scenes). Unfortunately, Horacio has eyes for Maxi; he is deep in the closet, being a former professional athlete and now a television sports commentator. Slowly, Maxi’s life keeps unraveling: there are rumors of the Michelin Guide’s representative looking to judge Maxi’s restaurant; Edu is expelled for gay-bashing at his school; Alex can’t seem to let go of Horacio, not knowing he is with Maxi; and Maxi must reevaluate his life and priorities concerning new loves and his children.

Velilla’s pace is non-stop, and “Chef’s Special” is a consistent laugh. While some of the humor is too crude, and a few scenes fall flat (I think due to language barriers more than anything), the cast is so likable and so watchable, I cared about them all from the minute the film started. While the final fifteen minutes is predictable, the film still had me, and I shiver to think what an American remake would do to these characters.

Velilla’s color palette is very Almodovar-like: colorful and bright. The opening credits and music work really well, and the film just plain looks fantastic. The cast is excellent, everyone seems to be having fun and the screenwriters have given them all plenty to do. I loved Alba questioning all her bedtime stories, Horacio being conflicted by his feelings for Maxi, and especially how Maxi handles Edu’s gay-bashing and expulsion. There are some dark moments here, but they are consistently balanced by some broad physical comedy, and somehow work without weighing the film down or depressing the viewer.

Despite the main character being a chef, the film makers wisely do NOT make this movie all about the food as a metaphor. Likewise with the sports angle. Velilla doesn’t hit us over the head with any statements along the lines of “see, life is just like a soccer match!” (thank God).

"Chef's Special" is a fun, raunchy comedy that reminded me of “La Cage Aux Folles.” While I usually hate to wish for a sequel, I wouldn’t mind sampling a few more servings of these characters. (* * * *) out of five stars.