CHEF Review

The wisest thing you could do before going to see Chef is to make sure your stomach is not on empty, but you also don’t want to be full off a big meal either. A nice pre-movie snack is suitable as you likely won’t make it through the film if you go in on an empty stomach, but will be more than mad at yourself if you go in stuffed not allowing space in your tummy for a dinner afterwards that might at least attempt to rival the look and taste of what you just witnessed being crafted on screen. It is with this middle of the road mentality (and hunger) that you receive something wholly fulfilling from Chef and if nothing else are surprised at the deeply affecting ways in which this film, that may initially come off as nothing more than superficial, moves you and teaches a well-worn lesson. For, despite the full buffet of A-list names on the roster the food (or any idea, goal, theme, etc. you want to apply there, really) is the real star of writer, director and star Jon Favreau’s latest. Favreau, who has been around the block and back in terms of directing makes his glorious return to what he clearly has a knack for in terms of pure, character-driven stories here. Don’t get me wrong, the guy is clearly more than a capable director as he not only crafted the under-appreciated Zathura, the now holiday-classic Elf (we forget to give him the credit he deserves on that one) and launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we now know it with Iron Man while not buckling under the pressure of turning around and delivering a competent sequel, but he also poured his heart and soul into the writing of the cult classic Swingers (launching not only his own, but buddy Vince Vaughn’s career) and then returning to the characters for his feature directorial debut with Made in 2001. He’ll soon return to the world of big budget tentpoles, but it is with great delight that we first get this small, delicately prepared dish that not only gives us a break from the larger productions the summer season is known for offering but more than providing an interesting diversion is the fact this is a truly solid and moving film that while featuring the food as its star attraction, is more about the heart and soul that is poured into the creation of that food that makes the final product, that full meal if you will, all the more satisfying.

Carl (Jon Favreau), Percy (Emjay Anthony) and Inez (Sofia Vergara) re-unite as a family in Chef.
We first meet chef Carl Casper (Favreau) as he prepares for a big night in his classy restaurant where the biggest food critic in Los Angeles, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), is coming into his establishment to see how far the once unknown cook that he helped push to the forefront has evolved in the ten years since they first enjoyed each other's work. The only hiccup in this set of circumstances being that it isn't technically Casper's establishment, but Riva's (Dustin Hoffman) who has given his chef full control of his kitchen yet still likes his very strong opinions to be known and to be taken into consideration. Riva in fact makes a very compelling argument for why Carl should not reach outside his specialties or traditional plates to create what might be considered more daring or inspired, but to instead stick with what he knows best and what has guaranteed him returning customers for nearly a decade. Carl seems to appreciate the value in the less noble option and diverts his initial plan to follow his employers suggestion much to the dismay of his staff which includes his sous chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and line cook Martin (John Leguizamo) as well as hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson) who he may or may not have an on-again/off-again fling with. This also comes as a disappointment to Michel as he delivers a scathing review not only of Carl's food, but of Carl personally and that is where Carl can't draw the line. He feels under attack not only for the way in which he chose to do his job, but in how he lives his life and within the midst of his frustration and not fully understanding how social media actually works he inadvertently sends out a tweet that starts a viral war of words between the chef and his critic resulting in a video that would no doubt go as viral as it does in the film. That may sound silly, using Twitter as a plot device, but it completely works within the context of the story that Favreau is telling and more than anything helps it to ring true to the world we now live in and play out in a way that is realistic while putting on display not only the downside of constant connection, but the advantages of what social networking can do when you need free advertising. This unique aspect to the film helps to show how what are no doubt thought of as the trends of today can be captured on film in a credible way to the point it will easily date the film in a few years, but serves the overall goal of the film in capturing a very specific moment in time perfectly. On top of all that, this feud and identity crisis is occurring around the time in Carl's life where he should be paying the most attention to his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), but is instead consumed in his work and blind to the opportunities his son and ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) are setting right in front of him.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, the food is the real star here, but the unavoidable fact that the cast has been stacked with so much talent make it impossible to take for granted. Not only do we get our first leading role from Favreau since Made (which, even then he served as a co-headliner) but he also called up every single one of his friends (except Vaughn unfortunately) and asked them to do him a favor and it seems they had no problem obliging not only proving how easy to get along with the director is, but also helping to inform the undercurrent of true decency that is necessary for audiences to understand the frustrations and shortcomings that his Carl Casper is experiencing and taking out in all the wrong places. In what are essentially glorified cameos Hoffman, Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. give into the free-wheeling spirit of the film and deliver on their somewhat archetypal characters in a way that allows them to better identify themselves with the world that Favreau has created and how they dictate his titular characters decisions and life path. Each of them play a critical role in where Carl's life is at presently and where it is going and they seem to realize this without over-doing it, taking some of the pressure off the more frequent actors that are simply along for the ride with Carl to not necessarily assist in his character development, but simply to enjoy it and watch with a hopeful eye that he turns out to be the man on the other end of these experiences that they know he is capable of being. The two or three characters this is in reference to are really Carl's ex-wife and companion on the road trip section of the film as both Leguizamo and Vergara are surprisingly enlightening here only hoping to play to Carl's strengths and helping to reassure him that not everyone is out to diminish what he has worked so hard to build. While I am typically put-off by Vergara's over-acting and the amount of emphasis she places on her accent she is perfectly contained here to not only being a capable and successful single mother, but a tolerable individual who we want to see Carl work out his issues with for the sake of Percy. Percy is the third party in question for as much as he is along for the ride it is his actions, his feeling of "want" to be a part of his father's life that drives the typically stubborn Carl to take a new lease on his perspective and to re-consider what is actually important. As much as Chef is about the delicious food and dedication behind it, it is also about the importance of applying that methodology to the right things in your life and in that the film is able to take an old recipe and whip it into something fresh and vivacious.

Chef Carl is riding a wave of good-will after he and Martin (John Leguizamo) take their food truck on the road.
What maybe makes the film not feel as substantial as you might imagine going in is the fact that it does indeed work within the confines of some rather familiar tropes and therefore doesn't exceed the limits of storytelling we might expect from a film that has received the kind of praise that was thrust upon Chef following its premiere at the SXSW Festival back in March. What is somewhat comforting about this though is that the film proves the ability to still be able to create interesting, fun and compelling characters and situations out of themes and messages we have been fed countless times before. That Favreau makes this appear to be done with such an ease only enhances our experience and the way the film makes us feel as we wander on along this adventure with Carl, Percy and Martin. To completely understand what Favreau was going for here, other than the obvious statement about how social media informs everything and the deeper relationship between those who create and those who critique, is to capture a moment in time and the importance of living in that moment rather than sulking in those that have passed that you don't have a chance of re-claiming. Favreau's script tells a story that focuses on a man who is looking to re-capture the excitement and happiness he once found in cooking and creating food while not really understanding how he allowed it to be taken from him in the first place, which is certainly what this film seems to symbolize in the trajectory of Favreau's career. What he learns is that it simply cannot be planned or configured into existence, but the moments in life that become the most memorable are those that are born out of simply allowing things to happen in a way that results from trying new things, stepping out of one's comfort zone because that truly is the only way you can create something new. Chef is about capturing the essence of those moments and this is so perfectly done and conveyed in the scene where our three amigos jam along with a brass band cover of "Sexual Healing" to the point we are transported in this moment to our characters' lives and completely understand the feelings rushing around within them. It would be easy to label this film as simply a "feel-good" or even "cloying" picture, but there is so much heart poured into the film you'd have to be blind to miss its genuinely sweet center. A story full of interesting characters, delicious-looking food, strong chemistry, a solid soundtrack and perfect pacing that it is nothing but easy to indulge in.