The Movie, Chef
When Jon Favreau made his big splash in the movie Swingers back in 1993, who could have predicted that he’d be playing a supporting role on TV’s Friends just a few years later? The guy was clearly destined for bigger things. Fortunately, since then he’s managed to carve out a nice resume of screenwriting, acting and directorial credits (Elf, Iron Man) and in his latest movie, Chef, he does all three in an absolute gem of a film. I haven’t had this much fun at a movie all year.
Favreau plays Carl Casper, a professional chef in LA who finds himself compromising his art due to restaurateur Dustin Hoffman’s insistence that he stick to the tried and true. A novice at social media, Casper learns just enough from son Percy (Emjay Anthony) to become dangerous, and a series of self-induced mishaps – culminating in a videotaped tantrum in front of food critique Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) – puts him back on the job market, lost and uncertain of what to do next.
At the prodding of Casper’s ex-wife, played by Sofia Vergara, Favreau and son begin a new business in Miami on a food truck, assisted by former line chef, Martin (played by the incomparable John Leguizamo). They city-hop across the country, learning a few things along the way about fatherhood, work-ethics, and how to use social media as one’s advantage. More importantly, the plot allows Favreau to show us his love affair with Miami, New Orleans and Austin, and the music and food that makes these cities come alive.
Favreau could have taken many predictable turns that would have made Chef yet another contrived Hollywood mess, and true, things are sewn up a little neatly at the film’s end, but the journey along the way is such a terrific romp, both sweet enough and irreverent enough to rope in my 12 year-old son (which ain’t easy), that a little contrivance toward the end is acceptable. It’s not often a movie balances things so well (Favreau’s excellent Elf is one example), and Chef lends credence to the notion that a well-done character-driven film is often more interesting than a plot-driven film (though having both is even better).
Big name stars Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Dustin Hoffman (not to mention Oliver Platt) all land terrific performances in small roles, but Leguizamo, sous chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and Favreau steal the show, along with Favreau’s father-son relationship with Anthony. The dialogue seems natural and unforced, and Favreau’s obvious love of cooking shines, as he affectionately devotes numerous scenes that reveal just how much effort people are willing to expend – all for the pleasure of a fine meal.