By: Matthew Goudreau
After the overwhelming critical and commercial success of Iron Man, actor/director Jon Favreau began a three film streak of big Hollywood blockbusters. Following a couple of lackluster films in Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens, it’s great to see Favreau make a return to smaller scale filmmaking. It’s easy to forget due to his recent filmography that Favreau’s roots began on the indie scene with films such as Made and Swingers. Chef represents a return to form for Favreau, as it’s a very personal movie that’s a celebration of doing what you love and the comforts that come with it. It’s certainly simple, but it serves as a pleasant change of pace if a bombastic summer movie season is not your cup of tea (I promise to cut down on the food puns!).
In a career best performance, Favreau stars as Carl Casper, the head chef at a top-notch Los Angeles restaurant. Despite having a job that as he says, “allows him to touch people’s lives,” Casper is stuck in a lapse of constricted creativity. This element is one of the strongest points of the film. Oftentimes, Casper’s words feel like an expression of Favreau’s real life convictions. In addition, his work has caused an estranged relationship with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and young son Percy (Emjay Anthony).
When announced that Ramsey Michael (Oliver Platt), a well-respected and equally intimidating food critic, will be reviewing Casper, this sparks a sense of renewal and newfound creativity. After being reprimanded by the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) to stay conservative with the menu, Michael publishes an overwhelmingly negative review which leads to a harsh exchange on social media between Casper and Michael. Casper consequentially loses his job because of this, which helps direct him along with Inez’s frequent suggestions to buy a food truck and travel cross-country with Percy and fellow chef Martin (John Leguizamo).
After watching the IFC show Dinner for Five, I gained a newfound admiration for Jon Favreau. While I found his early films such as Made to be slightly self-indulgent, Favreau always struck me as a very intelligent guy in the industry. In many respects, Favreau has since matured as a filmmaker. Chef has a light-hearted charm to it much like his previous film Elf but with a more mature center and restrained performances. The humor of Elf is very much here, but instead of it being mostly sophomoric and wild improvisation there’s great conversations and banter between Casper and Martin for example. It’s feel good comedy, which is also a great change of pace from the gross out craze we have experienced in recent years.
Favreau as an actor has always possessed a certain amount of charisma and likeability. Here, he fine tunes that into an avatar of himself in many respects. When Hoffman’s character tells him to “be an artist on his own time,” I imagine that stems from certain restrictions and requirements the studios placed on him for his prior two films. Casper’s incredibly likeable, and Favreau has great chemistry with everyone in this charming cast. I’m usually hit or miss with child actors and these types of subplots since they sometimes feel overly sentimental and schmaltzy. Luckily, Anthony and Favreau have a great dynamic that keeps the relationship from sliding down that slope.
The father-son relationship has many parts to it. At first, it serves as a humorous introduction for Carl into social media. It’s all too reminiscent of many of us having to show our parents how to use Facebook or Twitter. The trip is frequently complimented by the usage of Twitter to get word out on the truck. It’s a pretty cool effect whenever the tweets appear while they’re driving on the road or stopping in a busy city street. Eventually, it turns into a bonding experience on the road trip. I’m not afraid to admit that a scene towards the end almost produced a tear. My compliments go to the actors and the script for making the relationship flow naturally during the film.
The biggest surprise for me came with Inez, both in her characterization and Vergara’s performance. I enjoy her work on the show Modern Family , but her constantly loud style of acting can occasionally be rather grating. In Chef, she underplays the role with a great deal of subtlety and in turn she’s made much more likeable. Inez is not the bitter ex-wife you may expect; she’s very supportive of Carl and pays for a trip to Miami just so he can spend more time with Percy.
Equally as important as the character dynamics in Chef is the usage of food within the film (come on, it’s inferred in the title). The movie is a celebration of food as an expression of creativity and the culture that comes with it. It’s a source of passion for Carl and there are plenty of excellently filmed sequences showing food being either prepared, harvested, or eaten. Word of warning, do NOT see this movie on an empty stomach otherwise you will be extremely frustrated. Whenever the food truck stops in a city, the culture of that city is shown in the food. For example, the stop in Texas focuses on slow cooked barbecue in big pits.
As glowing as I am about the film, the sentimentality I previously mentioned does come to fruition in the last part of the film. It’s a very predictable and “feel-good” type of ending that didn’t necessarily ruin the film for me, but it was too easy of a wrap up for me to fully buy into. It’s almost as if the film becomes one of those family films of the 1980s where everything is resolved in a matter of minutes. It can be argued that the film is not entirely that sophisticated to warrant a well-crafted ending, but one of my pet peeves is an ending that is too clean for its own good.
Aside from that, my only other minor criticism is the fun cameo by Robert Downey Jr. as the man Carl buys the food truck from. Coincidentally, he’s Inez’s ex-husband which feels kind of like a shoehorned-in plot point. This is the one scene where the improvisation feels a little forced and all over the place. I was pleasantly surprised to see Downey Jr. pop up, but the scene could be taken out of the film and it wouldn’t harm the final product.
The Blu-ray presentation of the film is very vibrant and detailed. As a result, the food sequences become even more hunger inducing. The audio is easy to hear and the soundtrack contains plenty of salsa music which adds to the lively pace. There’s not much in the way of extras, but the commentary track by Favreau and Chef Roy Choi is fun and very interesting since they talk about the film from their different points of view. If you’re someone looking for a film that provides wholesome and pleasant entertainment without a lot of special effects spectacle, Chef is definitely for you. Even better, it’s one of the few films this year that I feel I can recommend to everyone.