Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Sofía Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr., Amy Sedaris
MPAA Rating: (for language, including some suggestive references)
Running Time: 1:55
Release Date: 5/9/14 (limited); 5/16/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 16, 2014
The man fails in his professional life because of hubris and neglects his personal life because of a passion for his profession but rises because of a newfound humility. We know this story, and that's fine. Recall the most important rule from Roger Ebert's guidelines about considering a film: The important thing is not what a movie is about but how it is about it. Chef tells a very familiar story, but it does so with wit, an attention to its characters, and plenty of compassion.
It also really sells the main character's job—the cause of and solution to many of his problems—in such a way that we can sympathize with his passion. He's a chef (in case the title didn't make that obvious), and the film gives us an ample amount of close-ups of food in various stages of cooking and presentation. Every dish here looks incredibly appetizing, and the film isn't narrow-minded about its food selection. For every gourmet meal the character prepares at the upscale restaurant where he starts, there's some simpler but still delectable item, like Texas barbeque or a perfectly pressed Cuban sandwich.
This might seem like a shallow thing to note, but writer/director Jon Favreau, who also plays the eponymous character, uses food and its careful preparation as a way to garner sympathy for the man. If he possesses the equal parts of skill and imagination to create these dishes, surely he has good reason for his pride. If he's this good at his job, it makes sense that he might lose track of his familial priorities in order to accommodate the time necessary for his career.
If Carl Casper (Favreau) loves his work and truly believes it brings joy to people's lives, that's at least enough for us to respect him. The food—and especially the sensuous way Favreau shoots it—is proof of it.
That's not to say Carl is perfect. He's far from it. The man is bordering on being an absentee father to his 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony). Their weekly visits together have become brief car rides between picking the boy up and dropping him off at Carl's ex-wife Inez' (Sofía Vergara) home before Carl heads off to shop for the restaurant where he works. He doesn't want Percy to come along for fear of being distracted by a bored 10-year-old at a farmers' market. The one time he decides to have a good time with his son, it's over in a short-montage flash—a distracted ride on a roller coaster, a movie, and then back to the car to bring the kid home.
At work, things aren't much better. Carl's creativity has been stifled by the menu demands of the owner (Dustin Hoffman) who figures it's best not to mess with a reliable thing. He's having an inconsistent fling with one of the bartenders (Scarlett Johansson), who's unwilling to take the relationship any further due to her respect for his skills in the kitchen and the fact that he's not in a good place for anything like that. His life has become stale, and he knows it.
All it takes is a scathing review from a prominent food critic, who had previously championed his cooking, to send his veneer of contentment crashing down on itself. Soon enough, a dangerously insecure Carl is learning how to use social networking websites from his son—who relishes the opportunity for a semi-lengthy conversation with his father—to see how much traction the review has gotten, and from there, it's only a matter of a few hours before he accidentally gets into a public war of words with the critic. Carl challenges Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) to return to the restaurant for a new menu Carl has prepared just for him.
Favreau's screenplay is simplistic but smart about the relationship between the creator and the critic, how dumb people can be on social media, and, when Carl's very public outburst at Ramsey is captured by the phones of multiple people at the restaurant, how infamy is still a curse, albeit a potentially beneficial one in the age of the Internet. After a brief interlude featuring a pair of funny appearance by Amy Sedaris (as a publicist who cannot comprehend the notion that someone wouldn't want to take advantage of a bad public image for fame) and Robert Downey Jr. (as Inez' previous ex-husband who switches back and forth between conversational topics with no warning or context), Carl finds himself in Miami and ready to reinvent his career and his life with—what else—a road trip with his son and a loyal cook (John Leguizamo) in his newly acquired food truck.
The trek from Miami back to Los Angeles offers more opportunities for gazing at food, but the real focus is the mending of the relationship between Carl and Percy. Favreau doesn't provide Carl with an easy way out in fixing the strained relationship with his son. There are tender moments between the two, yes, but they come at a price. He still needs to find a way through Percy's anger at his father for every time he's been late or needed to drop off Percy early, and then there's the fact that Carl is planning on transferring the attention he once put on his previous job to the food truck. During one conversation, Carl is honest with his son about the reality that's about to set in for their relationship, and it's quite affecting.
The film is eager to please, but in scenes like that one, Favreau does the work to make certain it does. There may be little new about Chef, but there is a lot to like about it.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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