Chef is clearly a personal film for Jon Favreau. This film of food trucks, caviar eggs and molten fillings is as much a tale of artistic resilience as it is the beauty of cooking.
It stars Favreau (writer and director besides) as celebrity chef Carl Casper. We watch as he crafts the perfect toasted sandwich, his chef’s blade lost in a joyful blur of movement. We watch as he flirts with Scarlett Johansson, and confides in his ex-wife Sofia Vergara (there is some wish-fulfilment on Favreau’s part here, perhaps). We watch as Casper self-destructs on social-media, recreates himself, refashions an aging food truck, and reconnects with his young son.
This is a thinly-disguised analogy for Favreau’s artistic career, from Swingers (1996) through to Iron Man (2008) and back again. “Starting from scratch never tasted so good,” proclaims the movie’s posters. If Casper’s work in a commercial kitchen – where his conventional menu is met with heated critical barbs – is an allusion to Marvel Studios, then Favreau evidently doesn’t think highly of the superhero studio. His boss, the sneering Riva (Dustin Hoffman), stymies Casper’s creativity: popularity and profit are Riva’s all-encompassing pursuits. The parallels to a franchise renowned for its firm hand with directors are hard to ignore.
Thankfully, Chef is more than a swipe at Marvel. It’s a warm, full-hearted film more interested in sustaining a hang-out vibe than a compelling narrative or central conflict. It’s about parenthood: to the extent that the narrative centres on anything it is on Casper’s relationship with his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), who is about the same age as Favreau’s eldest. It’s also about food. This is not a film to see on an empty stomach, as the camera worships a smorgasbord of delicacies that glisten, steam and set one to salivating.
The film’s chief success is that it doesn’t try too hard. Casper spends the first half of the film slaving over intricate recipes fit for a hatted restaurant, but the back end has him fixing up a food truck. The film embodies the food truck’s spirit. With his son and loyal friend Martin (John Leguizamo), Casper serves Cuban sandwiches: simple, authentic, enjoyable. Chef is much the same: it’s unsophisticated and insubstantial, but possesses an honest geniality in its simplicity.
It avoids typical pitfalls of personal films by having a sense of perspective. For example, hoity-toity critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) is initially painted as the villain, but is granted humanity late in the piece. Few rebukes of film critics on behalf of directors are as even-handed.
Not that the script is generous to all of its players. Chef is about men – friends, colleagues, fathers and sons – and has little time for the women around them. Even Robert Downey Jr.’s cameo as a romantic rival of Casper’s has more complexity than the script deigns to grant Johansson or Vergara. There are other problems, too – the prominence of social media in marketing is authentic but overplayed (at times the film could be retitled How to Promote Your Business on Twitter) andfor an easy romp it overstays its welcome.
These are minor complaints. After all, Chef is food truck fare: crowd-pleasing and enjoyable, even if a tad undercooked.
This review was originally published at The 500 Club.