Having made a few blockbusters, writer, director and actor Jon Favreau scales things back a little with Chef, a feelgood tale about a man who reconnects with his young son and ex-wife through his passion for cooking. It has some nice moments, usually during the good-natured verbal jousts favoured by the main male characters, though distracting cameos and big-name supporting turns seem superfluous, and create a slightly smug, self-satisfied air. It also plays out like a long advert for Twitter at times, though social media is certainly relevant to the story.
Chef may appear to be about the restaurant trade, but presumably it is intended to be read as a parable about the movie business, perhaps revealing the state of mind of its writer and director following the helming of the disappointing Cowboys & Aliens. It’s probably safe to assume that the parallels between Favreau’s career and that of his character Carl Casper, a successful professional head chef working in Brentwood, California, are not coincidental, but Chef also briefly examines the motivation of critics, suggesting via its fairly transparent set-up that it’s almost impossible for a film critic and a director to have a meaningful discussion in this day and age without it turning into an unseemly public spat.
Carl’s boss is restaurateur Riva (Dustin Hoffman), and he’s on good terms with sous-chef Tony (Bobby Canavale), maître d’ Molly (Scarlett Johansson) and line cook Martin (John Leguizamo). Unfortunately, although the restaurant is busy, Carl is creatively stifled and years of long hours are apparently to blame for the breakdown of his marriage to Inez (Sofía Vergara), as well as his stuttering, slightly-awkward relationship with young son Percy (Emjay Anthony). When Carl is stung by the harshness of a bad review by a previously-supportive and influential food blogger named Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), the chef sets up a Twitter account and attacks back; a war of words ensues before Carl publicly berates Ramsey for his review, launching into a tirade about how serious he is about his work and how much people in his kitchen care about the food they cook, footage of which subsequently goes viral. After quitting his job, Carl takes the opportunity to follow a dream and jumps on the food truck bandwagon, primarily selling cubanos and medianoches in Miami before making his way back to California across the south. This back-to-basics foodie road trip takes in some of the comfort food highlights of Louisiana, Texas and Florida and allows Carl to bond with his son over a hot skillet.
Presumably Favreau, like his main protagonist, felt like he was stuck in a rut after a few years of big budget nonsense. (Hey, there have been successes like Elf and Iron Man, but I don’t think many people would honestly stick up for Iron Man 2 or the aforementioned Cowboys & Aliens.) It certainly appears as though the director is trying to return to his ‘indie roots’, at first, but he can now call on a host of big names to help him out, and while I’m sure everyone had fun on set I found the appearances of Hoffman and Johansson to be distracting in a fairly low-key comedy-drama like this; if Favreau really wanted to capture the spirit of those earlier days surely he could have given a break to a couple of up-and-coming actors who need the work instead. I guess he has cast people who are friends, and that’s his prerogative, but it feels like a step too far when Robert Downey, Jr, briefly playing another one of Inez’s ex-husbands, appears for a brief cameo. He may as well have been introduced with a title card saying “Hey everybody, it’s Robert Downey, Jr!”. (If anyone reading ever actually meets the actor, please can you do me a favour? Tell him you think his best work is in Chef, and record his reaction.)
Leguizamo is fine, though we’re not really talking about demanding material here; he’s an actor that I always enjoy watching and I wish he’d get more lead roles. Bobby Cannavale’s also OK during his brief scenes, but his character disappears soon after taking Carl’s old job. Favreau completes the film’s ‘likeable everyman’ trio, and as per Swingers he draws out your sympathy despite playing a mopey, slightly-flawed character. It’s a warm performance, albeit occasionally mawkish, and I can even just about overlook the fact that he has had the nerve to cast Scarlett Johansson and Sofía Vergara as his partners in the film.
Part road trip, part father-son bonding drama, it’s all rather neatly and unrealistically rounded off near the end, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a feelgood ending. As stated above, the constant shoe-horning of Twitter as a plot device becomes annoying, but it is at least partly relevant to the story; my understanding of pop-up restaurants and trucks and the like is that social media – free to use, of course – is pretty much essential in getting off the ground and becoming popular. That said, we all know that some people in America use Twitter; there’s really no need to show Tweet bubbles popping up above random heads as they wait in line for a sandwich, is there? It’s a device that instantly took me out of the story, as did the sudden and unnecessary use of a split-screen, which perplexingly only occurs once.
I’m probably giving a false impression here by pointing out the film’s various faults; I actually quite enjoyed Chef. It’s an easy, inoffensive watch, with a few amusing moments, and although it’s formulaic I found it quite restful having watched this, this and this earlier in the same day. If you’re in the mood for a warm, simple story you could do worse.
Directed by: Jon Favreau.
Written by: Jon Favreau.
Starring: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey, Jr.
Cinematography: Kramer Morgenthau.
Editing: Robert Leighton.
Running Time: 114 minutes.