Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on March 11th during our coverage of SXSW. I’m republishing it now because Chef opens in theaters today.
It’s not exactly a deep insight to note that Jon Favreau’s sunny, small-scale Chef feels like a response to the giant studio projects he’s either written or directed in the last several years, which have been full of spectacle (and Iron Men and cowboys and aliens and couples retreats) but not much heart. He’s the writer, director, and star of Chef — it’s only the second time he’s pulled triple-duty — and his personal enthusiasm shines through. To paraphrase someone in the film, it seems like Favreau is cooking for himself again.
Favreau plays Carl Casper, a once-promising Miami chef who in recent years has moved to L.A. and, like many people who move to L.A., sold out. He creates good but unimaginative dishes for a popular high-end restaurant whose owner (Dustin Hoffman) insists that he stifle his creative menu impulses and “play the hits.” (You can picture a studio head telling Favreau that something needs more explosions.)
Still, Carl enjoys his work and takes it seriously — too seriously, perhaps, as he neglects his 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), and disappoints his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), who’s still friendly since the divorce. His life revolves around the restaurant, where he flirts with and cooks for the hostess, Molly (Scarlett Johansson), and has a loyal kitchen staff that includes his sous chef, Martin (John Leguizamo).
It takes an influential online food critic (Oliver Platt) to awaken Carl from his reverie, with a scathing review that calls him out on his complacency and throws in some insults about his weight to boot. (Critics. Is there anything they can’t do?) This leads to an amusing Twitter fight and an in-person confrontation that winds up on YouTube. But more importantly, it makes Carl realize he needs to get his culinary groove back. His ex-wife has been suggesting he open a food truck. You know what that means. Road trip!
Wait, what? Yes, it doesn’t exactly make sense, but Carl, Martin, and young Percy drive across the country in the food truck, stopping in places like New Orleans and Austin to sell food and hone their craft. Percy, thrilled to bond with his dad and learn how to work in a kitchen, uses his social media expertise to spread the word. The Internet disrupted Carl’s life; now it saves it. (The Internet. Is there anything it can’t do?)
Favreau and Leguizamo have what feels like a natural rapport — is it possible that Favreau has rapport with everyone? — and this Emjay Anthony kid seems sharp. (Bonus: he actually looks like he could plausibly be the offspring of Sofia Vergara and Jon Favreau.) The father-son stuff is a nice touch, sweet without being sappy, but the emphasis is on Carl’s own personal improvements, his rediscovery of the joy of cooking.
In the process, of course, we’re seeing Favreau pour his heart and soul into a project he cares about, one that lets him be funny — and Chef is frequently hilarious — and also lets him indulge his gustatory impulses. Chef is brimming with food porn sure to excite the salivary glands of even the most casual gourmand. More attention is lavished on how to make a proper Cuban sandwich, for example, than on several of the film’s characters (Johansson totally disappears in the second half) or on the story, which comes from a box rather than being made from scratch. This is the Favreau we used to know and love: a sardonic motormouth with a soft center who’s just a lot of fun to hang out with.
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