Jon Favreau’s Carl Casper is at a tough crossroads. Like any successful artist, he worries if mainstream success and popularity has caused him to lose that enigmatic voice from his youth that first put him on the map. In fact, he’s a lot like Jon Favreau himself, whose latest film, Chef, is a beguiling charmer of talent and wit with nary a CGI critter in sight.
Favreau hit the independent and filmmaking world in a big way when he wrote his first starring vehicle, the Gen-X staple Swingers. And much like Favreau’s Mike Peters dealt with the personal and professional issues of trying to be in the entertainment business in his 20s, Chef offers a delicious companion piece to those insecurities nearly 20 years later. But on the other side of success, the question remains: after making it big, whether in a five star film or a nine figure blockbuster franchise, can you still have the passion and drive that first caused you to create? The answer is, thankfully, yes in this crowd pleaser that will feed any appetite.
In his current job, Carl is the respected and terribly bored chef of an American cuisine eatery overseen by conservatism in a suit, Riva (Dustin Hoffman). The personification of money and its mistaken role in creativity, he has strapped Carl to a menu of blandness that can only be enlivened by his Sous Chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and up-and-coming culinary saver Martin (John Leguizamo). However, after getting into a disastrous social media war with an LA food blogger and emotions butcher (Oliver Platt), Carl soon finds himself without a restaurant and little to subsist upon other than his distant relationship with friendly ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and the eagerly estranged son, Percy (Emjay Anthony).
With such a difficult situation, Carl could spend the whole movie wrestling with his existential dilemma. Or, he could open up a food truck with his son and best buddy Martin for a summer road trip of self-discovery and Cuban sandwiches! Thankfully, we all take one of the latter.
Chef is a wonderfully enticing comedy where the laughs are as frequent as the star studded supporting cast that rotates through the kitchen. Practically a backyard party centered around the director’s grill pit where Favreau gets to invite all his friends to come over and play, the movie could be easily mistaken as an excuse to revel in good folks and good food.
And all the food looks incredibly good in this picture. While Carl could be considered a parable for any middle-aged artist, the camera takes a special delight in dwelling on the delicacies that come off of Carl’s cutting board. In LA that means sensuous pasta intended to seduce and blood-red steak that is for those rare moments of pure anger. After Carl is dispatched from the restaurant, he and Percy finally bond on the road from Miami to the West Coast, serving the all-ages comfort of a warm sandwich. But that doesn’t mean they have to ignore the appropriate use of thick Texan barbecue beef when they swing through Austin. It’s enough to make the mouth water, as well as couch some of the juicier elements that are marinating.
Both at home and in the office, this is a movie about living in perpetual flux. Having never been particularly close to his son, Carl continues to find excuses involving the business and avoiding spending time with Percy other than the occasional trip to the farmer’s market or amusement park. Then again, a divorcee’s apartment that is more akin to college dorm room is probably not the best place to be as a dad.
Meanwhile, on the professional side the movie indulges in on specific peculiarity of any business digested by public consumption, taking a very defiant dig at those who unfairly criticize the realities inherent with rising to the top. Of special amusement, or awkward acknowledgement for anyone at my screening room, is Favreau reflecting on the mean-spirited cynicism of critics, captured in the snarkiest of turns by Platt. While I wouldn’t say this creator reaches the level of appreciation for appraisal that his rodent counterpart in the similarly themed Ratatouille did, there is a begrudging acceptance of knowing when well-worded critiques (and praise) can prove worthwhile.
Favreau also pays reluctant respect to the mighty power of social media, albeit with a crooked smile bordering on disdain for the Twitter logo floating throughout the movie. After all, it is the best tool imaginable to reach out to many customers nationwide, turning the food truck into an overnight sensation. However, it is also the media lynch mob of public opinion that can send a career dangerously close to burning in the same parodic flames as Gordon Ramsay.
Still, for all of the movie’s bigger ambitions to deftly craft a state of the union on Favreau’s career, it will be for the party he throws on behalf of it that will have viewers salivating for more. Already the Audience Award Winner for Narrative Film at the Tribeca Film Festival, Chef urges moviegoers to join Vergara, Hoffman, Cannavale, and a particularly convivial Leguizamo for the good times. Hell, Iron Man buddies Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson even drop by for a few scenes. Albeit, a foodie or not, Johansson’s hostess having a fling with Carl seems like wishful thinking on Favreau’s part as is the casting of Vergara as his ex. Downey also makes for a truly great cameo as her other ex that Carl must go hat in hand to in order to get that food truck. It’s like Tony Stark never left the director’s lens.
Chef might be a little too warmly light to entirely fill some small pockets of audiences, in particular with its lightly seasoned ending that mildly melts away the conflict. However, as these summer months are about to kick off, it will be just right for any moviegoer looking for something appealingly relaxed and refreshingly adult. It appears that Favreau is one of them.