Jon Favreau’s Chef is bloated at times and bites off more than it can chew, but it’s a frequently sumptuous and fully fleshed-out meal with side dishes as potent and satisfying as the main entree. The seasoning is exquisite, the presentation is dazzling and you’ll leave the theater full and content.
Now that’s enough food metaphors for one review, right?
After a lengthy foray into blockbuster filmmaking with the Iron Man franchise and the regrettable Cowboys and Aliens, multi-hyphenate filmmaker Favreau returns to his roots with this low-budget, star-studded, light-fare dramedy that indulges some of the director’s passions and incorporates many of his favorite famous actors. The movie doesn’t always make the best use of these supporting players, but Favreau’s finely tuned performance and the affecting relationship between his character, Chef Carl Casper, and his adolescent son Percy (EmJay Anthony) keep the film afloat.
Casper is the head chef at an upscale restaurant in Hollywood. His refined palate and culinary ambition frequently clash with the restaurant’s business-minded owner Riva, played wonderfully by Dustin Hoffman. When a prominent L.A. food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) comes to review the restaurant, Casper has no choice but to make the acceptable but hardly revelatory food on the menu instead of whipping up something original and fresh. The critic eviscerates Casper in his review, which prompts a Twitter war, an in-person confrontation and the origin for Casper’s new business venture, the early days of which take up the film’s second half.
The movie’s strengths also reveal its shortcomings. The critic narrative appears to be the central thrust of the movie until that arc abruptly vanishes when Casper takes a trip to Miami. Supporting performances from Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr. and Sofia Vergara are appealing, but they lack the screentime necessary to ascend from cameo to actual character. (Johansson in particular is wasted as Casper’s unlikely romantic partner, who promptly disappears when the plot doesn’t require her presence anymore.) Favreau has some interesting ideas about the unseen impact of a critic’s words, but his script hammers those points home with too heavy a hand, as if he’s writing an open letter directly to the critics who have written negative reviews of his previous movies.
But there’s much to like as well. Favreau is adept at shooting naturalistic conversations that don’t feel driven by a screenwriter’s calculating hand, especially when he’s the one delivering the dialogue. His performance is subtle but nuanced, with an appropriate blend of resigned weariness and latent passion. The food in the film is mouthwatering, shot lovingly by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau and rendered in an array of colors so gorgeous that it’s almost a disappointment when movie stars are on the screen instead of Cubanos and grilled cheese. The soundtrack is also exceptional, including a delightful cameo appearance by Gary Clark Jr. and other gems from Pete Rodriguez, Liquid Liquid and The Martinis that drive home the movie’s organic sense of place.
Though the story of a father finding common ground with his son is (one more food pun) marinated in cliche, Favreau varies the arc on this story just enough to justify his abundant screen chemistry with his onscreen son. Rather than realizing that he should pay more attention to what his son wants, Casper reaches his son by doing what he does best and translating his passion to the next generation. The most affecting moment in the film comes when Casper asks Percy to teach him how to use Twitter. “We should hang out like this more often,” Percy says. Casper is confused. “We do hang out!” he replies. Percy gives his father a look. He doesn’t mean they should go to more amusement parks or restaurants. He just wants to spend relaxed time with his dad unencumbered by outside distractions. Perhaps this moment is just another example of Favreau’s occasional self-indulgence, also reflected in the movie’s disproportionately rosy conclusion. But it’s also an insight that doesn’t make it into movies often enough. Working hard to please somebody has its limits. Chef understands as well as Casper that the most satisfying moments are often the most relaxed.