There’s not a whole lot to say about Chef, but that’s not because it’s a bad film; it’s a sweet, light-hearted film about food and finding yourself–or rediscovering yourself, as the case may be. It’s on the lower end of the ***½ range, but it sneaks in on the strength of its charm, its lack of contrivance, and how fucking good the food looks.
Carl Casper (writer-director Jon Favreau) is a renowned chef working in an upscale L.A. restaurant. Because prominent food blogger Ramsay Michel (Oliver Platt) is going to be reviewing the restaurant on a given evening, Casper decides to move away from the menu he’s been cooking for months (if not years) and prepare something special for Michel. But the restaurant’s owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), browbeats Casper into sticking with his tried-and-true dishes. Michel writes a withering review which argues that Casper, once a great and daring chef, has become complacent and emotionally needy; Michel also mocks Casper’s weight gain.
With the help of his son, Percy (EmJay Anthony), Casper sets up a Twitter and begins a war of words with Michel, which begins trending. Casper finally tells Michel to return to the restaurant, where an all-new menu will be served to him. Riva yet again interferes and Casper quits, going home to cook for himself. Michel is served the same menu he previously denigrated, and begins tweeting about it, prompting Casper to drive to the restaurant and confront him directly, a confrontation which descends into defensive screaming, which is recorded and widely disseminated.
Humiliated and unemployed, Casper’s ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) suggests he join her and Percy on a trip to Miami, which happens to be where Casper’s culinary career began. His spirits boosted by the bonding with Percy (with whom he’s spent less time than he should) and Inez (whom he still has affection for), he takes up an offer from another ex of hers, Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.), to open up a food truck. He and Percy, with the help of his old sous-chef Martin (John Leguizamo), get the truck set up and begin making grilled Cuban sandwiches. With Inez’ blessing, Percy joins them as they drive the truck back to L.A., raking in customers along the way thanks to Percy’s social media savvy. As the trip progresses, Casper not only finds his love of food revitalized, but also his love for his family.
There aren’t enough films that celebrate food, and as a gourmand, that saddens me. Chef, though, comes through, from the lovely Cubans to the simple-yet-elegant pasta dish Casper makes for Molly (Scarlett Johansson), the restaurants’ hostess. Though romance is only hinted at between the two of them, this scene effectively suggests the romantic nature of great food and the kind of seduction performed by chefs on their diners. (That Johansson moans rapturously on tasting the final dish only heightens the parallel).
Chef manages to be about more than just the food, though. If anything, it’s a parable for Jon Favreau’s own career. After early successes (Elf, Zathura–the latter was well-reviewed though a flop), he hit it big with Iron Man, but followed that up with Iron Man 2 and worse, Cowboys & Aliens (which was just…no fun at all). He had money, but he was in a creative rut. So he went back to the basics, making this friendly little film for himself. Of course, he got a lot of his famous friends to come play, but all things considered Chef is pretty independent both in story and style.
I particularly liked Favreau’s refusal to introduce any kind of artificial conflict into the film. Throughout the latter part of the film, with all the rejuvenation, and life, and love, and laughter, I felt sure that some kind of bullshit complication would be tossed in to keep things “interesting” (my money was on Percy hurting himself in the kitchen¹). But that never happened. Yes, the very ending of the film has a couple of mildly contrived developments, but they don’t change the essential tenor of the film.
That’s not to say that the film is faultless. A rather annoying trend in recent cinema has been to treat social media as inscrutable for anyone over the age of 35 (or 40, whatever), or at least to assume that the audience finds it thus. (The upcoming Sex Tape with Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel seems like an even more egregious example.) To the film’s credit, it visualizes Twitter quite effectively, but it does at times border on fogeyism.
The film also borders on being a bit of a vanity project for Favreau; Casper is, after all, a master chef, and those around him are in awe of his prowess. Plus, he makes Scarlett Johansson dinner (in, as I’ve said, a love scene by proxy), which she devours effusively.
But he makes sure that we see every side of this man, whose dissatisfaction, after all, is what drives the plot. When he bellows at Michel in the restaurant, grabbing fistfuls of lava cake to show how they are, in fact, sufficiently molten, it’s a pretty cringe-inducing scene (and he never really apologizes for it, either–which honestly might be the more truthful choice). He also tends to sideline Percy, who wants to be a chef as well, and we get the feeling that he and Inez separated because he put his cooking first. He’s a decent man at heart, but Favreau does not, shall we say, completely sugar-coat him (pun disgustingly intended).
Favreau really does do quite well for himself across the board. As a director, he keeps the film bubbling along (even at a borderline-overlength of 115 minutes); as an actor, he’s charming, believably temperamental, yet also believably devoted to his friends and family; as a writer, he tells a simple story with wit, charm, and well-drawn characters. It’s a major bounce-back from his last film, and hopefully a portent of things to come.
The starry supporting cast is good as well, though many of them are glorified cameos. EmJay Anthony continues the mini-trend of really solid child performances; Percy is precocious, but believably so, and he and Casper (like Anthony and Favreau) make a great team. Sofia Vergara is quite strong as well, and the film thankfully makes Inez a likable, well-rounded character despite her relatively short screen-time. There’s no stereotype on display.
Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale, as Casper’s acolytes, are plenty of fun; Platt doesn’t get much to do, but he’s suitably pompous; Johansson, Hoffman, and Downey all have relatively little to do, but they do it quite well. Perhaps they all believed in this happy little film. I hope so.
Technically, it’s just fine, though not outstanding in any department. The soundtrack is quite fun and peppy; it boosts the film through some of its more subdued stretches.
Chef is the sort of film that I tend to describe as “bright”; it’s a light-hearted, upbeat affair, one that doesn’t betray its characters or situations, that doesn’t try to be anything it’s not, but just provides a couple of hours of friendly entertainment. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
¹Percy does once mildly hurt himself (I think he touches the sandwich press on accident), but it’s not treated as some kind of epic tragedy.