In recent years, a new problem has emerged for filmmakers: how to represent digital communication onscreen. People go to the movies to see actors express emotions, but in the real world, we increasingly express ourselves in ways that are not particularly cinematic—texting, tweeting, video-chatting via a screen the size of a palm.
In the mid ‘90s, the first movies about the Internet – The Net and Hackers—used now-laughable computer-generated imagery to physically depict the web onscreen (perhaps this is where Ted Stevens picked up the notion of “a series of tubes”). You’ve Got Mail in 1998 was the first to seriously tackle the way digital communication could impact lives, but being adapted from an earlier film—1940’s The Shop Around the Corner in which two characters fell in love using letters—it treated email merely as an old communication style reincarnated.
As the Internet has become more pervasive, it hasn’t gotten much easier to portray. Some attempts have been strange: Last year’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty inexplicably projected its protagonist’s emails onto natural structures, like the side of a mountain. More impressively, this year’s airplane hijack thriller, Non-Stop, creatively showed text messages onscreen in a fluid, situation-dependent way: They would blur when the character looked away, or shake violently due to turbulence.
But perhaps no film has so fully embraced the new ways that we communicate as Jon Favreau’s Chef. It is being marketed primarily as a movie for foodies, and it indeed does display a sensuous appreciation of a well-prepared meal. Favreau plays Carl Casper, an upscale Los Angeles chef who eventually ends up running a food truck, along the way giving lovers of fine dining and comfort eats alike plenty to drool over. But the culinary stuff is, well, a side dish. At its core, Chef is the story of a man whose life is ruined and then redeemed by social media.
The refreshing, innovative thing about the movie isn't just that Favreau has found a pleasing and convenient way to depict Twitter onscreen (tweets materialize in the air and then, when sent, fly off like a bird). Rather, it’s that social media turns out to be a catalyst for the protagonist's personal growth.
Carl is an aging Generation Xer who lives his life mostly offline. Sure, he has an email account and knows what YouTube is, but he doesn’t understand how social media works or what its value is. This becomes apparent after he fires off what he thinks is a private tweet to a food critic who gave him a particularly vicious and personal review. The obscene message goes viral, and an online war of words ensues. Eventually, Carl angrily confronts the critic at his restaurant, leading to a meltdown that’s captured on video and uploaded to YouTube, where millions view it. After the scandal, no one is willing to hire Carl. It appears that social media has ruined his life.
Except that’s only the first act. Leaving behind the stifling, high-pressure environment of the upscale dining world, Carl opens a food truck and re-discovers his authentic artistic voice. He and his son take the truck on a tour of great American food cities like New Orleans and Austin. At each stop, throngs of customers greet them—because Carl’s son had been surreptitiously tweeting the truck’s location and uploading pics of the grub to Instagram. That’s a type of promotion that the old-school Carl could not have done, and it helps his new business succeed.
So although social media plays a role in both the character’s downfall and eventual redemption, the film ultimately casts it in a positive light. The movie gets that the permanence of our Twitter and Facebook posts is scary; we’ve all witnessed public figures engender scandal from a poorly thought-out or misinterpreted tweet (Anthony Weiner, anyone?). But Chef eventually says that even our worst moments on Twitter are opportunities for personal growth because they encourage honest, immediate exchanges of ideas and emotions. Ultimately, Carl’s firing sets him free. He wanted out; he just didn’t know it until he said it on Twitter.
Of course, in the real world, not everyone’s perception of social media is so sunny. A new indie entitled Friended to Death offers a cautionary tale about using Facebook as a substitute for real social interaction; its lead character worries that his online friends don’t care about him, so he uses the website to fake his own death. This is more in line with how Hollywood typically depicts users of social media: as tragic or as punch lines. Think of Catfish or The Social Network, both of which portray characters who turn to Facebook to compensate for their own insecurities.
But Chef’s reassuring message about the value of social media has a basis in reality. Whether it was the live-tweeting of the Iranian election protests in 2009 or, more recently, NYPD’s enlightening failure of an attempt to coin a successful hashtag (they created and promoted #myNYPD, which was promptly flooded with pictures of police brutality), Twitter has proved a successful tool for widening worldviews and promoting accountability. Chef turns this broad social function into a personal one, offering us a positive spin on a phenomenon we—and Hollywood—are just starting to understand.