In Hollywood, Jon Favreau has become a household name as the man at the helm of the Iron Man trilogy. While he admittedly did a commendable job as the director of the first two movies from that franchise, he actually started out as an indie comedy filmmaker. Chef, a pet project of his, sees the jack of all trades return to his roots, while prominently involving him in several roles – as the leading man, director, writer, and producer. Does Jon Favreau succeed, as he did with the Iron Man blockbusters, or does carrying that much weight overwhelm even such an über-talented man?
On the surface, Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) seems to have it all. He’s the acclaimed chef a hip L.A. restaurant run by Riva (Dustin Hoffman) and has his hot girlfriend named Molly (Scarlett Johansson) working with him. Yet appearances are deceptive. Casper’s career is as much on the downgrade as his private life, because he often fails to be a good father for his ten year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony), who lives with Carl’s attractive estranged wife Inez (Sofia Vergara). After he has gone against his instincts at the restaurant and started using Twitter for the first time, Casper finds himself ending up in a public flame war with the noted restaurant critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt).
Having lost his job and hit rock bottom, Carl allows Inez to take him on a family vacation to Miami, where he rediscovers his passion for the Cuban cuisine. When he is able to obtain an old food truck with the help of Inez’s first ex-husband Marvin (Robert Downey jr.), Carl slowly but surely gets his mojo back. His old mate Martin (John Leguizamo) helps him refit the vehicle, while Percy becomes their apprentice (and social media expert). Together, the three soon embark on a road trip to take the truck to Los Angeles, an odyssey through the south of the United States that will change all of their lives and fates forever – their Cuban sandwiches become a traveling sensation.
Unlike some of the more recent Hollywood comedies, Chef fortunately steers clear of rehashing the same old done-to-death clichés all over again. Much of it has to do with Jon Favreau’s screenplay and direction. The story is well-crafted and the characters are mostly believable and likable. The same goes for Jon Favreau’s own performance as Carl Casper. The movie wouldn’t work without his ability to make the Chef a person we care and feel for. As viewers, we certainly don’t blame Carl for breaking the unwritten laws of the business when he attacks Ramsey Michel. If anything, we sympathize with him. Who in their right minds wouldn’t want to tell an arrogant, judgmental critic where to stick it?
To some extent, Chef is a coming-of-age tale for both Caspers – for the father as much as for the son. Percy learns all about what drives his dad and the secrets of his trade, while finally spending some quality time with him. Carl, on the other hand, basically behaves like a spoiled child until he receives a wake-up call in the form of a devastating review and the subsequent shitstorm. At the nadir of his adult life, he realizes that it’s the little things that matter and how many of them he has neglected to make it to the top. It’s not just Casper returning to a simpler existence, however, but he learns the value of family. In a way, the world of the Chef is turned upside down here. Percy becomes the teacher and Carl the apprentice. The young son shows his father a more joyful, passionate way of life.
Likewise, the film’s general atmosphere reflects that journey. The first half of Chef is much darker and broodier, as we witness Casper’s descent into his personal hell as a sell-out. In the second part, we receive more positive vibes while watching Carl turn his life around. The richness of the music mirrors the overall mood change. When the Chef and his new crew travel through Miami, New Orleans, and Texas, Jon Favreau makes sure that we get a vast assortment of different flavors – not just in terms of the food but also audiovisually. Casper’s voyage back to relevance is accompanied by an almost overwhelming amount of colorful impressions to reveal his recovering spirit and passion.
These impressions, then, together with all the interesting characters Carl and company encounter on their way back to Los Angeles, are what makes Chef so special. They are the secret ingredient of Jon Favreau’s recipe, a story for the heart and the soul. What he gives us is a feel-good tale, garnished with a great amount of ‘Americana’ – the positive sides of the country we’ve come to enjoy over the last century. It’s nice to know they’re still there, as the United States has frequently shown its uglier face to the global community in recent years. With Chef, Jon Favreau and a brilliant ensemble of actors (including Boardwalk Empire ace Bobby Cannavale) do their best to reestablish America in our hearts, and they succeed. Their recipe works almost as well as Carl Casper’s exotic creations.
Seen at Kinoteatr 35mm, Moscow, Russia, on 7 June 2014.