After years of playing the big budget blockbuster game, Director/Writer/Actor Jon Favreau has taken a few steps back, and a nice deep breath. The result, his most delicious film in years.
Chef centers on Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) a once wildly inventive California chef who is stuck in a rut in more ways then one. His current boss (Dustin Hoffman) wants him to stick exactly to a fairly boring menu, he’s facing intense internet scrutiny from a highly successful food critic (Oliver Platt), and above all, he’s estranged from his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony) following his divorce.
After all of this finally causes him to loose his temper in spectacular public fashion in front of the critic, he decides to strike out on his own. Buying a food truck in Florida, Carl, Percy, and Carl’s sue chef Martin (John Leguizamo) go on a cross country adventure to rediscover their culinary creativity.
All of this sounds fairly cliche, and that’s because it is. This movie has absolutely nothing new to offer in the plot department. However, that very quickly starts to not matter in the slightest, because the execution of this very simple story is so earnest, and delectable. There’s are no forced conflicts, or silly set pieces, it’s just a movie about regular people being regular people and interacting as such. Favreau has a very naturalistic voice in his writing, and all of the banter between all of the characters feels completely reserved, and authentic. You like all of these people, and you want to see them succeed and be happy.
More specifically, two plot elements in this really work.
The first is quite simply, the film’s passion for food itself. Never have I seen a cooking film that was more about the actual preparation of the food, and how much the little intricacies from ingredient shopping, to the exact way mustard is spread across bread matter to the people in the kitchen. Be advised, do not go into this movie hungry, or you will probably pass out, because everything look delicious. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau really shines here, giving us a gourmet, front row seat.
The second is the relationship between Carl and Percy. These interactions could very easily feel trite in less deft hands, but in Faverau’s, they are wonderfully sweet. He strikes a wonderful balance between the tense, and loving moments these two share, and actually lets us see why they are bonding, instead of just having the movie tell us they are. It’s wonderful to watch Carl pass on his cooking expertise to his son, and in return, Percy teaches Carl about the modern world, particularly the internet and it’s many, many pitfalls.
All of the performances in this are wonderful, even if they are brief. In the leads, Favreau anchors everything beautifully, giving us a likable, flawed man who relishes in his second chance, Anthony gives one of the better performances I’ve seen from a young actor in a long time, and surprisingly enough, even John Leguizamo is fun here, getting passed some of the lameness of his more recent crop of roles. It’s also so much fun to see a who’s who of A-List supporting actors come through. The highlights being Scarlett Johansson as a kind waitress at the first restaurant, Dustin Hoffman as the argumentative manager, and in the films funniest scene, a suitably sleazy Robert Downey Jr as the man who sells the truck to Carl.
My only real issue is that the screenplay feels a little top heavy. The real magic of the movie happens once we get on the road, but it takes quite a long time to get there. I could have done with a little less moping around in the beginning to get things going a little faster, even if it meant ending at an hour and a half.
Overall, Chef is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year so far. It’s incredibly simple, but wears that sweetly on it’s sleeve, and provides something pleasant, funny, and poignant in this season of blockbusters.