Synopsis: A chef who loses his restaurant job starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise, while piecing back together his estranged family. (From IMDb)
Review: If the Food Network ever decided to branch out and bankroll a cinematic drama Chef might be the result. Be warned, watching this film will make your taste buds salivate and your stomach grumble. It is, essentially, an extended commercial for Cuban food with a sweet storyline about redemption weaved in between. Jon Favreau-the writer, director, and star-returns to the indie movie circuit of his roots. He is currently best known among mainstream audiences as the director of Elf, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens, and as playing Iron Man’s chauffeur Happy. There are obvious parallels between the main character, Carl Casper, and Favreau’s own experiences in Hollywood. Chef is a heartwarming tale about recapturing a lust for life and a commentary on being an artist in the modern world.
Chef follows the creative fall and rise of Carl Casper, the titular character. Carl is the Chef de cuisine at a high-end LA restaurant. However, his workaholic habit and dissatisfaction over cooking the same menu for ten years has wreaked havoc in his personal life. He is divorced from Inez and barely spends time with his son, Percy. When a popular food critic gives an unflattering review of Carl’s work, this causes him to go off the deep end and let out his frustration over his career. One thing leads to another and Carl finds himself without a job and a shattered professional reputation. At his ex-wife’s urging, Carl opens up a food truck specializing in Cuban sandwiches. Accompanied by his former co-worker Martin and Percy, Carl revitalizes his professional career and fixes his personal life.
Written by Favreau, the screenplay is tight and has the classic three-act structure. The film moves at a pleasant pace and never drags. Something pertinent to the main plot is always occurring on screen. Favreau is not oblivious to the hardships of creating a business from scratch, though he does present a best case scenario. Then again, the running time does not allow for a lot of digression from the main narrative arc. So a best case scenario is needed or else the narrative would be bogged down by needless drama. In a nod to the generational gap between father and son, the main subplot follows Carl learning the pitfalls and benefits of twitter. Percy is the tech savvy 10-year-old who sighs heavily when dad just does not get social media. It is a nice homage to the need for social media in promoting new businesses but also an object lesson on being careful about what you post.
From a directorial perspective, Chef is a tight film with very little superfluous details. Favreau clearly cared about the film and took pains to make it visually pleasing. Though, after the sixth closeup of masterfully assembled edible concoctions, you might wish Favreau had not dedicated so much screen time to food. These scenes flawlessly serve as a visual reminder that Carl is meant to be a master chef. Even the act of making a grilled cheese sandwich becomes elevated into the realm of culinary magic. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau perfectly captures and glamorizes the process of food preparation. It is much more appealing than anything found on the Food Network. Other stylistic choices include a travel montage, a string of Vines, and live Tweeting help to establish the film as taking place in the current century. Otherwise, the narrative could have been placed in any year after 1950. The result is a distinctive and enjoyable film that is visually appealing and fun to watch. Though I always crave barbeque and Cuban food once the credits starts to roll.
Favreau plays Carl. He is an engaging presence and commands attention without overpowering the supporting cast. Carl oscillates between being a charismatic artist, rock-star chef with nothing to lose, and an insecure middle-aged man who regrets some of his past decisions. He is a believable character and comes across as someone I could meet at the local Farmer’s Market. Emjay Anthony portrays Percy, Carl’s son. Percy is affable, well-behaved, and longing for some quality attention from his father. Anthony has excellent chemistry with Favreau and the father-son dynamic is believable. John Leguizamo is Martin, Carl’s business partner. While Martin is a rather one-dimensional character, Leguizamo has a strong screen presence and adds the flamboyance needed to play off of Favreau’s more subdued acting. Robert Downey Jr, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, and Amy Sedaris make cameo appearances as characters used to move the narrative forward.
This is definitely a male-centric film and there is nothing wrong with that fact. It is a cross between a self-discovery and road trip bonding film. To help balance out the story and explore Carl’s personal life, there are two female roles. Inez, the ex-wife, is portrayed by a slightly subdued Sofia Vergara. And Molly, the restaurant hostess/personal friend, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. Neither character is given much to do besides motivate Carl to pursue a more fulfilling opportunity. However, while the roles could have been expanded, anything more developed would have detracted from the main point of the film. Chef is about finding balance and enjoyment out of work and life. Carl first has to fix his unhappiness at work before he can focus on the problems in his personal life. So the narrative rightly deals with Carl learning to be happy, not his complicated love life. Though there are enough scenes detailing his personal life to flesh out both sides of his life. Both Sofia and Scarlett put in solid performances.
Chef is a pleasant cinematic road trip through the great culinary cities of America. It is exactly what it was marketed as, a delightful and heartwarming story about redemption and second chances. This is a nice palette cleanser from all the heavy handed dramas, cynical documentaries, and flashy blockbusters that dominate the box office at the moment. Favreau embraces the simple joys of life and the entrepreneurial spirit that inspires people to chase their dreams. The film is not flashy, preachy, political, or overly complicated. And in a world where nearly every movie forces a political agenda down the audiences’ throat, it is a refreshing cinematic experience.