I’ve now made a few false starts on this review looking for ways to suavely introduce Jon Favreau’s new movie Chef. I tried writing about his history as a director, but didn’t feel I had enough expertise in his filmography. I tried writing about the difficulty in directing a film while also starring in it, but there have been enough examples of people doing that well that I didn’t get much of anywhere. So all further pretense, and more importantly pretext aside, let’s start with this: Chef is very clearly a passion project, and one I’m very happy to report has all the spice and vigor you’d expect from something in that category.
Chef is Favreau’s first time in the director’s chair since Cowboys and Aliens in 2011, and as many have already said, it’s a return to the actor/director’s (and in this case also writer/producer’s) independent roots. Marvel has a lot to thank Favreau for given that he kicked off their present run of success with Iron Man (way) back in 2008, but behind all the explosions, gorgeous CGI, and Robert Downey, Jr. charisma, the thing that always stood out to me about Iron Man and Iron Man 2 were the smaller moments, the touches of playfulness that went beyond what seems to be the Marvel mandate.
Chef is a movie full of those moments, maybe even made by them. The story follows Favreau as Chef Carl Casper, head chef at a fine Los Angeles restaurant whose life has stagnated from the competing forces of his own work-obsessed ignorance toward those around him and a restaurant owner (Carl’s boss) who has grown progressively more and more afraid of change. This pressure builds until a bad review from a top critic and subsequent Twitter- and YouTube-captured blow up/melt down force Carl to take a step back.
That’s the basic premise you can glean from the trailers as well, and is probably necessary, along with a few other plot details which may come, to any discussion of the film, but really it’s a shame that I have to give away even that – a lot of the fun from the movie comes from just being along for the adventure with Carl. Which, as I write it, is a weird thing to be saying because this is not an inventive film in terms of its character arcs. While Chef makes some very smart decisions regarding which parts of Carl’s archetypical sort of “spirit journey” are emphasized and which are mostly absent, this is a movie the basic trajectory of which you’re going to be able to guess pretty quickly.
One thing you might not expect, given the trailers and the cast list, is just how Carl-centric the movie is. The key relationship is between Carl and his son Percy, played by Emjay Anthony. They’re at the center, and they get the screen time (along with a fairly significant role by John Leguizamo as Carl’s sous chef and business partner). Robert Downey, Jr.? In the film for about five minutes. Dustin Hoffman and Scarlett Johansson fall on the sides of slightly less and slightly more, respectively, with Bobby Cannavale and Sofia Vergara topping the supporting character screen time totem pole. (SCSTTP? Seems like that acronym would be a thing…but I digress.)
The way these characters weave in and out of Carl’s life is actually part of the charm. A lot like Much Ado About Nothing felt as though Joss Whedon was just having fun with some friends, Favreau has rounded up the gang for this movie. Downey’s an attention hog for the few minutes he’s on screen, but that’s the character and clearly loving it. Johansson’s been on a well documented roll of late, but doesn’t seem sto scorn this bit supporting part in the least. That’s what makes the casting so special – everyone feels like they’re having fun with whatever role they’re in, happy to help their buddy Favreau make this thing he wants to.
At this point it would be easy to start rambling, because although Chef never ascends to being a truly great film, it’s a very good one for reasons which are not easily describable. I’ve used words like “energy” and “flavor” to describe the movie not because it’s a movie about food (though it does a great job of communicating the zeal great chefs have for their art), but because it feels like a movie that is close at hand. Favreau’s excitement for the movie is infectious, and he makes us want to savor every moment and hurry up to take another bite all at once. Said another way, there’s life to this movie. It’s not something that’s been put through the studio processor and refined to the point of easy consumption. It’s a movie with texture, a movie served up a particular way because its creator wanted to make it that way just because he thought it was good fun. (Ok, some of the word choice in those last couple sentences were because the movie is about food.)
If I do have a significant gripe, it’s with the camera. Favreau does a good job – particularly given the fact that he’s a co-actor – of directing the performances (though I guess that’s made easier by the cast), and he does a great job of mixing go-get-em action (relatively speaking) with quieter moments, but his camera gets pretty boring. I’m not someone who tends to notice technical details in the midst of a story that I’m enjoying, but Chef used shot/reverse shot editing with some pretty uninspired framing so often that I noticed the habit before the halfway point of the film. The visuals still look nice enough, vibrant color saturation reflecting the warmth and energy that permeates the film, but I dearly wish that the camera would have more consistently reflected the warmth and excitement of the rest of the movie.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
Jon Favreau’s name may not be in the title of Chef the same way that Lee Daniels found his way into Lee Daniels’ The Butler (though I’ll admit that had to do with something more than simple self-aggrandizement), but make no mistake: this is Jon’s movie through and through. Favreau may not possess the generational talent of a Hitchock or a Coppola or a Scorsese, but there’s a reason people go to see his movies. The energy, warmth, and personality he brings to the movie elevates Chef well beyond what proves a familiar storyline. This is a deliciously fun movie to be enjoyed whether you’re a foodie or not.