MOVIE REVIEW: Chef
"CHEF"-- 4 STARS
When you wipe the smile and the foodie drool off your face after watching Jon Favreau's delightful new film "Chef," you might not see the real-life parallels going on between his new lead character and the director-star in real life. Those who know the face and the voice see Jon Favreau as the well-known sidekick actor, mostly associated with Vince Vaughn ever since they broke out with "Swingers" back in 1996 and lately in the "Iron Man" films next to Robert Downey, Jr. Those who know the face, but not the name, might not realize that, while Vince has gone on to become a leading man, Jon has stayed more in the auteur path of Hollywood as a prolific director. He's the man behind the camera directing "Zathura," "Elf," "Iron Man," "Iron Man 2," and "Cowboys and Aliens" before "Chef" arrived.
In "Chef," Favreau plays Carl Casper, a prominent L.A. chef undergoing a life-change after a big public failure sends him back to his roots to start over. In reading that filmography I just listed for Favreau, you might see where I'm going with how autobiographical "Chef" is for the filmmaker. Favreau gets a great deal of guiding credit for getting the Marvel Cinematic Universe up and going with the first two "Iron Man" films. It made him bigger than "Elf" and got him cred to try just about anything he wanted. Then, the critical and commercial flop of "Cowboys and Aliens" came along two summers ago and brought him back down to Earth with the worst reviews of his career. "Iron Man 3" ended up in someone else's hands and Favreau has seen his wide open door close a little. Like the lead character he wrote for himself, "Chef" is a chance for Favreau to get back to the character-driven chatter-filled roots that made him great in the first place.
Let's get back to the film at hand. We meet Favreau's Carl as the executive chef of a prominent Brentwood restaurant owned and operated by Riva, played by Dustin Hoffman. Riva hired the up-and-coming Carl out of Miami ten years prior and brought his talents to L.A. In the decade since, the static popularity of the restaurant has grown stale with a go-to menu of favorites lacking newness and creativity. Carl's on his way to becoming a has-been.
Outside of the kitchen, Carl is a divorcee to his Miami sweetheart Inez ("Modern Family" Emmy nominee Sofia Vergara) and young son Percy (extremely non-annoying newcomer EmJay Anthony), who he sees on weekends. Work stress, a busy schedule, and a fizzled spark split them up a few years ago, putting Carl in a deeper rut. Scarlett Johansson plays a restaurant manager and a yawn of a love interest for Carl that doesn't fill that void.
Upon a hotly anticipated review visit from renowned restaurant critic and blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), Riva forces Carl, flanked by his assistant cooks Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Emmy winner Bobby Cannavale), to deliver the normal menu of favorites over anything creative and new to impress the critic. That leads to a scathing and personally combative review from Michel that goes viral when Carl begins to clash with Ramsey over Twitter. When Ramsey gets provoked to return for a second meal, Carl walks out on Riva, who again won't change the menu, and goes off on Michel in one of the best rants you'll see on film or YouTube.
This enormous public and viral embarrassment sinks Carl's career. Inez takes pity on him and urges Carl to take a trip with her and Percy to Miami, hoping he can get inspired where he first started as a creative artist. Inez sets up a meeting with her prominent other ex-husband Marvin (a hilarious extended cameo from Robert Downey, Jr.) that gets Carl started on his own food truck. With a little inspiration from Inez's father, the elbow grease of his son, and the help of Martin coming east to join him, Carl starts "El Jefe's Cubanos," specializing in traditional Cuban pork sandwiches.
The truck's runaway success starts a creative and social media comeback for Carl and company. More importantly, with the permission of Inez, Percy gets to spend the cross-country trip from Miami to L.A. helping on the food truck as a line cook with Carl, creating much-needed bonding and learning time. Part food flick and part road trip movie, all in all, even if it's predictable, "Chef" is a very good cinematic meal. It's a treat to see a fun character figure out his life and get his mojo (and his "mojo") back (see what I did there).
Buyer beware, do not go into this movie hungry. You will chew the arm off of the person next to you and that's never a good date move (unless you're watching a zombie flick, which this is far from). Folks, do the dinner before the movie on this one, ladies and gentlemen, or you will willingly overeat afterwards. I warned you now. You'll see.
The dizzying and dazzling array of delicacies being created, served, and devoured is absolutely phenomenal. There are no "stunt hands" here. That's Favreau rocking the kitchen skills and blades. Though this might be on the scale of a indie film, the film's editor Robert Leighton ("Now You See Me"), cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau ("Thor: The Dark World"), and sound effects editor David Acord ("Captain America: The Winter Soldier") all come from big budget backgrounds and had to work overtime to completely inundate your senses with every cut, sizzle, knife clang, ingredient dash, crisp presentation, and camera shot of feverish culinary action. On one level, put "Chef" right up there with the great food films like "Eat Drink Man Woman" (it's chief inspiration, according to Favreau himself) and "Big Night." This movie is a victory alone just in that regard and worth your date movie dollar.
Where "Chef" soars even more is with a crowd-pleasingly story. The laughs come as easy as the appetizers. Yes, the guy is handed plenty of help in his character transformation and, yes, the help comes easy. For that, the film probably reaches someone's levels of corny or schmaltzy on one end and someone's watered down drink or weak sauce on another, but my compliments still go to Favreau on this clear passion project effort that echoes his own career at the moment. I'm firmly in that crowd that loves and remembers the chatty and loquacious Favreau that fills a conversation and room with energy. After playing the sidekick so long, I haven't seen talent from him in a while and this is a welcome return to the center of the stage, potty-mouthed barbs and all. Favreau's got a real winner on his hands and I hope this film finds a wider release than the limited play it's getting now.
LESSON #1: THE ENORMOUS PLUSES AND MINUSES OF SOCIAL MEDIA-- This film is extremely modern and current with its treatment of the trials and tribulations of social media. News, both good and bad, travels faster than we ever thought possible. Twitter plays a heavy role throughout "Chef" in criticism, social following, viral marketing, entrepreneurship, and more. Word of mouth becomes how fast you hashtag, tweet, or reply to something, not when you actually see someone and talk to them. Another example is how a blogger has become a more renowned critic than a print one and how permanent something is once it hits YouTube.
LESSON #2: THE FREEDOM OF CREATIVE CONTROL-- Like I implied with the parallels between Favreau himself and Carl, you can plainly see that Carl wants to show off his creative cooking outside of Riva's insisted menu likely matches the creative control he was probably lacking with some of the big budget movies he's done as a director. We're hearing rumbles of similar Marvel strife with Edgar Wright leaving "Ant-Man" for reported creative differences. Despite the millionaire bank accounts, we forget these men and women are and were artists before they were hired hands. This is a passion as well as a job. Not everyone seeks the freedom Favreau does. Just look at Adam Sandler recently calling his movies "paid vacations."
LESSON #3: THE MANY USES OF CORNSTARCH IN AND OUT OF THE KITCHEN-- It doesn't just thicken gravy. You'll see.
LESSON #4: THE HARSH AND PERSONAL SIDE OF CRITICISM-- What sets this story off is different forms of harsh criticism. Riva questions the usefulness of Carl's creativity and the smarmy uninformed critic who doesn't have context slams Carl's cooking and choices. With Riva, he flaunts the entitlement as the bankrolling owner. The critic does his thing to get pageview traffic, followers, and Twitter trends. For Carl, however, that sharp criticism hurts because cooking isn't a job for him, it's a passion. He's not going through the motions. He's really trying and the critics don't see that. I guess I better go retract that slanderous "Letter to Vince Vaughn" review I wrote for "Delivery Man" before his stunt coordinator emails me again. (Nahhhh!)
LESSON #5: THE FINER DEFINITION OF FATHER-SON "QUALITY TIME"-- When you take the food away, "Chef" is about becoming a better father to your kid. "Quality time" isn't just going out and doing things while together. It's about removing the "while" and actually doing them together. A few hours, days, or weeks actually completing tasks, talking, and learning together beats any movie, show, roller coaster ride, or shared activity that lacks real interaction. Do things with your kids, not just show them things. Talk with them, not to them. Put in real effort and you'll be a real parent with a real relationship with your children.