Jon Favreau’s Chef (movie review)

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The chef in Chef, played with astounding authenticity by the multi-talented Jon Favreau, chops, minces, stirs and arranges the components of his meals with pinpoint precision as if he’s a painter crafting his latest masterpiece. For Carl Casper, it’s more a labour of love than a mere job. This is the guy your friend is talking about when he suggests you ‘do what you love and the money will follow.’ He’s definitely making a good living because Carl is the head chef at a high class restaurant in Los Angeles.

Casper represents the modern image of the food connoisseur, the one that proves the kitchen isn’t just for women and pretentious men with foreign accents. The millions of food shows you see on cable TV have shown the rise of the ‘every man’ foodie like Anthony Bourdain. That’s what this film tries to represent. Carl’s overweight, mouthy, decent looking, has burn marks all over his hands and arms, and bleeds testosterone. Unfortunately, he’s also stubborn as hell. Or maybe just passionate.

Carl yearns to imbue his restaurant’s menu with his own unique style of cuisine. The thing is, technically it’s not his restaurant. The owner is Riva, played by the great Dustin Hoffman in a small, but effective role. He wants the kitchen to prepare the classics, the meals that put asses in seats. They argue right before a well-known reviewer and blogger, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), comes to dine in the restaurant in a scene that would’ve been so much more effective if it was slightly less indulgent; Favreau has a way of extending some scenes past their prime.

Ramsey gives the restaurant a poor review which leads to a Twitter war and Carl rips into Ramsey in person in front of the whole dining room, again, in a scene of which Favreau as a writer/director loses control. Carl becomes a social media sensation, but can’t find work after quitting until his ex-wife, Inez (Sophia Vergara), finally convinces him to open a food truck.

From here, it’s all about Carl reinventing himself, exploring his creativity through a new outlet. Of course, the movie would be a little thin if he didn’t also have family problems. He’s divorced from the same wife who helps him get his life back on track and acts distant around his son, Percy (EmJay Anthony), focusing more on picking up the proper ingredients for his next meal than spending quality time with Percy.

We’ve seen this scenario a million times; we know his son will join him on his food truck adventures and we know how it will all turn out, with uplifting music and wisecracking in between. It’s charted territory, but Favreau handles it in the same way Carl handles food; he takes a product we’ve seen again and again and infuses it with his own passion and creativity. We know how the movie ends, but the journey is full of unexpected moments and unusual plot points. Sure, some scenes last too long, the episodic lectures Carl gives to his son don’t feel natural, and the social networking aspect distracts from the story, but for the most part Favreau avoids the clichés and overly sentimental style of similar movies. Unlike these films, there are few manufactured moments of self-enlightenment or scenes meant to induce extreme pity within the audience.

That’s not to say there’s a lack of emotion. The film contains an unusually stellar cast for such a small film, yet even the actors in cameos, like Robert Downey Jr, give it their all. John Leguizamo brings his usual energy to the film as Carl’s friend from the restaurant who comes to work with him in the food truck. Their bromantic shenanigans makes you want to get on that truck and sell Cuban sandwiches with them. Sophia Vergara gives a surprisingly toned down performance, although you can tell she’s struggling to keep her Modern Family persona in check. Scarlett Johansson, another Iron Man star, also appears for good measure.

But the real star here is Favreau himself. After a string of big budget monsters, he comes back to his roots, directing, producing, writing and acting in a small, dialogue-driven feature in the style of Swingers, one of his first films. Despite its flaws, Chef is full of energy, snappy dialogue, and a character and story that never become dull. Favreau himself gives one of the best performances of his career, nailing the ‘average Joe’ character (cooking excluded) and making the audience fall in love with the guy.

There’s nothing average about the food in this movie, though. There’s a scene where Carl whips up one of the simplest food items on the planet: a grilled cheese sandwich. However, from the sizzling of the bread, to the variety of melted cheeses, to the crunching of the finished product, this scene, among others, will have you salivating. Any movie that makes you feel this strongly about a grilled cheese is a keeper.

Rating: 3.5/5 Atoms

NR 3_5 Atoms - B-

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Glen Ilnicki
Glen Ilnicki 271 posts

Glen has been reading comic books and playing video games his whole life. His unhealthy passion, however, is for film. He currently resides in Ottawa, Canada.