Aging wünderkind Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is floundering in mid-life comfort. He’s divorced from the successful and wealthy Inez (Sofía Vergara), a distracted father to Percy (Emjay Anthony) and a complacent head chef at a moderately successful French restaurant. He’s about to be visited by toughest culinary critic on the Internet, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt); the stage is set for a spectacle. Instead, restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) deals out an ultimatum; follow the road most travelled or leave. Playing safe results in a devastating review that goes viral and Casper’s resulting meltdown only fuels the fire. At rock bottom, he resorts to the total independence of a food truck to rebuild his career.
Ultimately Chef is an extremely intimate story of coasting through success until comfort kills creativity. It gives us an insight into Favreau’s journey as an artist and a filmmaker as much as the character of Casper. There are numerous parallels between Favreau and Casper's career. Firstly they both came to a point in their creative journey where their began to take too much input from the 'system.' For Casper it's the safety of restaurantaur Dustin Hoffman, who doubles as the wise yet safe totem for the Hollywood studio system that intervenes and mutate Favreau/Casper's artisitic vision. For Favreau it's Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens, two colossal critical failures, that clearly don’t have the spark of his more singular creative visions (Swingers, Made, Elf or Iron Man). For Casper it's this static, 'auto-pilot' menu. Yet from these failures a new more exciting creative venture is born.
Casper goes through the drastic learning curve about the power of social media in the modern age and examines its currency from an uninitiated perspective. The blissful unawareness of Casper is a great commentary for those in Favreau’s generation that don’t live on planet Facebook. It’s quaint and cute for those of us who live our lives online but I felt that it made sense for Casper’s journey.
Favreau shoots Chef with a gritty flair. The food is a guilty pleasure that leaves you wishing a food truck would have pull up mid film for the audience to be able to eat along with the characters. The pristine cleanliness of his initial restaurant space and of Inez’s palatial mansion are antithetical to the sweaty flavour of Chef in the hard working, travelling kitchen.
This passion project boasts a potent ensemble, all on fire for their ‘El Hefe’ in character and of the project, Favreau. John Leguizamo just pops off the screen as Casper’s first mate Martin. He provides the perfect warmth and faith for Casper’s talent that is required to steer him through unsafe waters. Emjay Anthony’s Percy delivers a solid and understated child performance that in the least trite way possible exudes more maturity than Casper. The support cast of Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr and Oliver Platt deliver essential direction for the character but are only deployed in small doses. Vergara was the weakest link of the piece, feeling like the most forced piece of casting in the entire film.
There are definitely some aspects of the film that don’t work. The contrivance of the family structure with Inez’s (Vergara) work and relationship between both of her exes Casper and Marvin (Downey Jr) is a stretch. It becomes even more strained when we’re asked to believe that Martin is willing to financially ‘pity’ back Casper’s new pursuits despite being a reputational train wreck. Also, Casper’s epiphany for the cuisine that he was going to make on his new truck endeavour added additional emphasis on Inez as food muse. It just felt like it was further reaffirming that these people should be together and ignored that the audience kind of already got that.
While Chef doesn’t totally reach the heights of Favreau’s best work, it bursts with passion.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Written by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Sofía Vergara, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr.
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.