Chef (2014)

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I admire the work of Jon Favreau. As an actor (best known for films like “Rudy” and “Swingers”), he’s fun to watch, and as a director (best known for films like “Iron Man,” “Elf,” and “The Jungle Book”), he comes across as a man who knows and loves movies. So, it was interesting to see a film starring & directed/written by Favreau and even more interesting to make comparisons to Favreau’s career within said-film…even if Favreau reports that these parallels are coincidental.

The film is called “Chef,” written and directed by Favreau, who gets away from Hollywood for a while to create this film independently. In the film, he also stars as Carl Casper, a passionate, talented chef who feels burned out from his job at a fancy L.A. restaurant run by pushy Riva (Dustin Hoffman). Carl works hard but isn’t given an opportunity to get creative, as Riva wants him to stick to the menu. But when a popular food blogger (Oliver Platt) pans the menu (and makes a horrid remark at Carl about his weight), this makes Carl snap. Upon getting a Twitter account and angrily calling the blogger out to return, his chance at redemption is ruined when Riva demands he stick to the menu or lose his job, and it’s made even worse when a video of Carl angrily confronting the blogger goes viral.

Carl is having trouble finding work, which leads to an idea from his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) for him to get his own food truck and travel across the country to serve the food he makes. Carl, Inez, and their 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) go to Miami, where Carl got his start as a culinary artist, and manage to get a truck. Inez goes back home, giving Carl and Percy plenty of much-needed father-son time, as Percy helps Carl fix up the truck and cook & serve Carl’s food. As their relationship grows, Carl goes back to his roots.

So, let me get this straight. Jon Favreau (er, I’m sorry—chef Carl Casper) started out as a happy, independent filmmaker (er, culinary artist) making films (er, treats) such as “Swingers” and “Made” (er, Cuban sandwiches), but then he found success in California with “Iron Man” (er, as a master chef at a trendy eatery), only to make “Cowboys and Aliens” and “Iron Man 2” (er, predictable, standard menu options) and annoy film critics (er, food critics), and so he steps away from the Hollywood system (er, the L.A. restaurant) and decides to try something more like the days in which he started out, and so he makes an independent film called “Chef” (er, he gets a food truck and makes his own food the way he wants it done)…

Obviously, I’m not the only one to think “Chef” was an allegory to Favreau’s career as a director by going back to his independent roots after “Cowboys and Aliens” failed at the box-office. And even though Favreau has denied this comparison, it’s difficult to believe that Favreau didn’t have some part of that in mind while putting the film together at the start. I can’t help but think he wanted (and needed) to try something new, away from Hollywood, and he succeeded in making an independent film that is both funny and endearing…and also will make anyone who watches it hungry for Cuban sandwiches. (Seriously, don’t watch this film on an empty stomach—there are plenty of close-up shots of food being grilled, served, whatever.)

Favreau turns in his finest performance to date, playing a chef with the right amount of passion and devotion, leaving room for regret as he realizes he isn’t spending as much time with his son, who admires him. Speaking of whom, Emjay Anthony is perfect as Percy, turning in a natural juvenile performance. I buy the two as father and son, and I thought the scenes that deal with their bonding were well-done. The rest of the cast consists of big names all of which do well in smaller roles. Among them are the aforementioned Vergara, Hoffman, and Platt, but also featured are John Leguizamo who’s quite good as Carl’s friend and fellow kitchen master, Scarlett Johansen as a former co-worker/part-time lover of Carl’s, Bobby Cannavale as a sous chef, and Robert Downey Jr. in a very brief but funny turn as Inez’s (other) ex-husband.

“Chef” is a small film with big-name actors, and it’s entertaining, funny, and will make you hungry for some damn good food afterwards. And if you doubt this was Favreau’s way to take a step back before returning to Hollywood, just remember the critical/financial success of “The Jungle Book,” released two years after “Chef.” The man needed a break, and to make “Chef” was to make the right call.

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