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.