Directed by: Jon Favreau.
Written by: Jon Favreau.
Starring: Jon Favreau (Carl Casper), John Leguizamo (Martin), Bobby Cannavale (Tony), Emjay Anthony (Percy), Scarlett Johansson (Molly), Dustin Hoffman (Riva), Sofía Vergara (Inez), Oliver Platt (Ramsey Michel), Amy Sedaris (Jen), Robert Downey Jr. (Marvin), Russell Peters (Miami Cop).
I wanted to like Jon Favreau’s Chef far more than I actually did. We often hear directors of huge blockbusters talk about the urge to go back and make a film more like their earlier, indie film successes – smaller, more personal projects. Few directors ever actually do this however – the money for making blockbusters is just too much to turn down, so they keep churning them out, and never get around to those “personal” movies they talk about. Jon Favreau has actually done it however. He got his start writing Swingers (1996) and then made his directing debut with Made (2001) –before going bigger and more mainstream in films like Elf (2003), Zathura (2005), Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010) and Cowboys & Aliens (2011). He’s one of those directors whose career can sustain a box office disappointment like that last film, and continue to churn out one big movie after another. But he decided against directing Iron Man 3, mainly leaving the Marvel Universe behind, and instead made Chef – a modestly scaled movie about one Chef who wants to get back to his roots. He wrote, directed and stars in the lead role in the film – and uses his connections to cast a number of fairly big names for an indie such as this. It feels like a very personal project for him – and I wanted to like it. The film is certainly not a bad film – although it lacks any real inspiration as well. It’s a safe, predictable little film – the type of indie that hits with audiences on a larger scale than most Indies, because it doesn’t really do anything new or challenging. In a way, it’s almost like the title characters menu at the beginning of the film – one designed to be popular, without having to be truly great. That’s a shame.
Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a once ambitious young Miami chef who got a ton of great reviews early in his career. He’s older now and has moved to LA, where he has taken a head chef’s job working for Riva (Dustin Hoffman) – who doesn’t really care about reviews, he just wants to make money. And the restaurant is doing great – so Riva is happy. But then a food blogger named Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) comes in to review the place. He’s hugely popular – having just sold his blog for $10 million – and is famous for being mean in his reviews. He once raved about Casper – but not this time, where he basically calls Casper “uninspired” and a sellout. This doesn’t sit well with Casper – he knows he can make better food, and also knows Riva won’t like it. Not understanding Twitter, he gets his 10 year old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) to set him up, and he tweets a nasty message back to Ramsey – and it quickly goes viral. Long story short, Casper winds up unemployed after his very public meltdown to Ramsey, and has no real prospects. His ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara) says her first ex-husband Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) has a food truck he can use in Miami. With nothing else to do, he goes to see him.
The film is essentially the cinematic equivalent of comfort food about a man who rediscovers his love of cooking, and reconnects with his son, who has ignored for too long. The back half of the movie is essentially a road trip from Miami to L.A. with Casper, his son and his best friend Martin (John Leguizamo) going from city to city selling sandwiches out of their food truck. It’s all fairly well done – Favreau’s dialogue is witty and occasionally funny, the all-star cast are all fine in their roles, the food looks mouth wateringly good and the time passes pleasantly enough. What’s lacking in the movie is any real ambition. Favreau chose to spend his time making this much smaller scale movie rather than something larger – his next film will return him to larger budgets (a live action remake of The Jungle Book) – and Chef feels like one of those “refresh” movies that directs sometimes make between bigger projects to get back to their roots. But I couldn’t help but wonder why Favreau felt the need to make this movie, to tell this story. It’s well handled, but adds up to nothing. To use another food analogy, it’s like a talented chef giving you a plate of scrambled eggs. Sure, they’re good scrambled eggs – but you’re still a little disappointed they didn’t make something a little bit more ambitious. Favreau could make Chef in his sleep, and even if the result is mildly pleasant, I still wish he had tried to push himself a little bit more.