Jon Favreau, who made an impact on the independent film scene with his debut film “Swingers”, has gone on to direct and star in a number of very good, high profile major studio films – he directed “Elf” and “Iron Man”, cementing Will Farrell’s movie stardom (for better or worse) and making Robert Downey Jr. a highly-paid super hero. He also directed the very underrated “Zathura”, based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg (“Jumanji”). I’m not sure why he decided to make a return to his roots, he has guaranteed his status to continue directing one $200 million film after another, but that is what he has done with his new film “Chef”.
“Chef”, is a good, hunger-inducing film about a once popular ‘rising star’ chef who now works at a popular, but pedestrian, French bistro in Brentwood. An entirely pleasant film to watch, but reflecting the reputation of the bistro he works at, “Chef” isn’t cutting edge. At one point, Favreau creates a montage on screen by using irregular sized rectangles showing various reactions from the characters, then the shots and placement of the rectangles change to show the abundance of activity. These montages are likely to induce a nap. I recently saw this technique used in a bad cable TV show the other night. But these moments are a small price to pay for the rest of the film, which is enjoyable.
Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) receives a terrible review from a famous food blogger (Oliver Platt); the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) forces him to cook their long established, out-of-date menu instead of the soul-satisfying food he loves to cook. His son, Percy (Emjay Anthony) shows him the basics of social media and Carl begins to take his frustrations out on the blogger, unaware of all of the social media nuances, and unleashes a twitter-storm. Eventually, he is out of a job and agrees to travel with his ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara) and their son to Miami. She wants him to meet with her first husband, Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) who says he has a food truck for him to use. Carl can’t resist and soon his former line cook, Martin (John Leguizamo) has joined them. Carl, Martin and Percy fix up the truck and plan to drive it cross country selling “El Jefe’s Cubanos” - a pressed sandwich made with slow roasted pork, ham, cheese and mustard - as they make their way back to Los Angeles.
There are a lot of nice touches throughout, giving the film a flavor all of it’s own. Favreau has enlisted the aid of real-life chefs for cameos - their appearances, and an extended musical performance by a relatively unknown musician, lead me to believe the chefs are personal favorites of the director. Let’s face it, they weren’t chosen for their acting ability. Aaron Franklin, a real BBQ master in Texas, can’t act, yet has a nice moment in the film with Carl, Martin and Percy. And this makes the film better in a way, more personal and infinitely more likable. If these moments were done at a corporate restaurant (for the sake of a plug-in earning the film money; watch the trailer for the new Adam Sandler – Drew Barrymore comedy “Blended” for an example of this, but please, just the trailer) it would rob the story of any credibility.
The relationship between Carl and Percy is at the heart of the film. It’s strained because every moment they spend together seems to involve something to do with Carl’s restaurant; a shopping trip, the farmer’s market, etc. So their time together is short and less interesting to Percy. Inez sees this and tries to push Carl closer to his son, to recognize they should be spending more quality time together.
Over the course of the road trip, Carl and Percy grow closer, caught up in the adventure and excitement of new cities, selling food to large crowds of people and watching people enjoy their food. They also bond when Carl learns Percy has a much better handle on social networking. These moments veer spectacularly close to material you might find in a sitcom, but Favreau manages to keep it cute and interesting. This is really the problem with a lot of the film – much of it seems lifted out of television. While this doesn’t make the film very challenging or complex, Favreau generally uses the best part of the material and avoids the kitschy over-done parts.
Favreau has gathered independent film vets like Oliver Platt and Bobby Cannavale and added some names from his high-profile work (Scarlett Johannson and Robert Downey Jr. are clearly doing favors) to make an interesting blend of acting talent. But Favreau gives himself the biggest part and the largest slice of material to work with. Throughout the course of the film, he has multiple moments of realization and his character grows more, so he is ultimately the most interesting. Perhaps best of all, his performance never seems forced. Favreau’s attention to detail help with his performance; he drives an older Mercedes, the product of his bygone days as an up and comer, he lives in a rat hole in Venice – the by-product of his divorce. The run-down apartment has a kitchen renovation in progress, the work moving as slowly as he is able to fund it. These surroundings seem to help his character become more lifelike and interesting.
Sofia Vergara, so funny in “Modern Family”, tones everything down and her performance benefits from it. She seems real and believable and natural. Favreau also creates a landscape for her that serves to benefit her performance; Carl frequently stops by and on one occasion he comments about the constant work being done by maids, gardeners, handymen, on her expansive house. She just smiles and continues with her conversation, paying little attention to the remark. We don’t really get the sense that Carl is paying for this, because she also mentions her publicist indicating she does something that pays her well. It is nice that she isn’t the stereotypical Beverly Hills housewife.
John Leguizamo plays Carl’s right hand man and he also dials it back, bringing some nice nuance to his role as Martin. He is the type of person who can get things done but he also wants to make sure the job is done right. Like Carl, he really cares about the food he puts out, which is why he leaves the job at the Bistro when Carl is let go.
Emjay Anthony is also very good as Percy. Like most children of divorce, he is trying to grab every moment he can with both parents. Since he spends the majority of his time with his mom, the moments he has with his dad are more special, even though they are also more aggravating. He seems glued to his phone and his iPad, because Carl is always more concerned with shopping at the Farmer’s Market. Percy seems like a distraction to these more important trips.
Oliver Platt does a very nice job as Ramsay Michel, the famous food blogger. He is a man who is very full of himself and knows the power of his words. Favreau makes an interesting choice, introducing the character at a very specific point. This decision helps to make Ramsay’s moments more funny.
Scarlett Johannson plays Mol
ly, the hostess at the Bistro. She is attracted to Carl and seems resigned to her role as a peacekeeper between Carl and Riva, the owner of the Bistro.
Dustin Hoffman plays Riva, the restaurant’s eccentric owner. He has a couple of nice believable moments. Robert Downey Jr. plays Inez’s eccentric, rich first husband. His character is the most over-the-top, but he is funny and his moments are brief.
There have been a number of films featuring chefs or family celebrations centered around food and the success of each of these is measured partially on how hungry they make you. These films need to make you hungry, very hungry. “Chef” isn’t the best example of this I have seen, but it is darn good. I think my main problem is there is too much exposition and narrative, robbing the film of time for more food porn. The food is good - at one point Chef Carl just cooks what he wants in his kitchen at home, at another, he makes a grilled cheese for Percy. Boy, I’m hungry just remembering the making of the grilled cheese. Strangely, once they get to the food truck, they start making the same thing over and over again and the food doesn’t have the same importance in the film.
Favreau has crafted a fun, enjoyable, hunger-inducing film.
Be sure to make reservations nearby for immediately after the film ends. You won’t be able to wait for a table. Trust me.