D: Jon Favreau / 114m
Cast: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr
Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) has been working at the same restaurant for ten years. The food he cooks is well liked but when the movie opens he’s been cooking the same menu for the last five years, so when word gets out that influential food blogger Ramsey Michel (Platt) has booked a table, Carl wants to do something different to impress him. However, Carl’s boss, Riva (Hoffman) wants him to stick to the existing menu and give Michel what Carl is famous for. Carl reluctantly agrees. In his review, Michel slams Carl’s efforts and wonders what happened to the culinary genius he first encountered ten years before. The next day, with Michel’s review trending on Twitter, Carl – with the help of his son, Percy (Anthony) – sends Michel an angry tweet that he doesn’t realise will be seen by everyone. A brief war of words leads to a challenge: if Michel comes back to the restaurant, he’ll cook food that will make Michel eat his words (excuse the pun).
This time, with the restaurant fully booked (thanks to Twitter), and with Riva even more concerned that Carl’s attempts to do something different will backfire on the restaurant’s reputation, he forces Carl to make a choice: either cook the established menu or leave. Carl leaves. Michel is bemused by receiving the same food again and assumes Carl has backed down on the challenge. Carl reads Michel’s tweet and heads back to the restaurant where he lambasts the critic in front of everyone; unfortunately a customer films Carl’s rant and the video goes viral. While all this has been going on, Carl has been trying to maintain an amicable relationship with his ex-wife, Inez (Vergara), and spend time with Percy, but his work has always gotten in the way. Now out of a job, Inez suggests he start afresh with a food truck, making the food he wants to make, and being his own boss. Carl isn’t keen on the idea, but with getting another job at a restaurant proving more and more unlikely, and while on a trip to Miami with Inez and Percy, he eventually agrees. Given the truck by Inez’ other ex-husband, Marvin (Downey Jr), and helped by Percy and his friend and colleague from the restaurant, Martin (Leguizamo), Carl gets it up and running and the three of them embark on a cross country journey selling food that reinspires Carl’s love for his work, and goes a long way to improving his relationship with Percy.
Each year, there’s always one movie that serves as an antidote or an alternative to the usual fare of summer blockbusters, a modestly budgeted, small-scale movie that entertains, moves, and delights audiences, and leaves them feeling that they’ve actually experienced something. Last year that movie was Before Midnight, this year it’s Chef. It’s one of those movies that inspires audiences to go home and take up whatever it is the central character does, and here it’s to make food that looks so mouth-wateringly delicious you want to jump into the screen and devour it (even the fried breakfast Carl makes Percy at one point looks heavenly). Carl’s passion for food is his life, and while other parts of his life don’t fare so well, it’s his faith in food that keeps him going, even when his professional life goes into meltdown. As played by Favreau, Carl is an outwardly positive man apparently in a good place in his life, but inwardly he’s stifled and lacking the drive to take his career to a new level. Losing his job turns out to be the best thing that could have happened to him, and it sees him reconnect with the other important parts of his life.
In particular, this means his son Percy. Carl is oblivious to Percy’s need for a proper relationship with him, and he doesn’t see his son’s unhappiness each time he lets him down. Even when they do spend time together, such as when Percy shows Carl how to use Twitter, Carl can’t wait to get back to cooking. The road trip from Miami back to California, where Carl teaches Percy how to cook, and father and son bond more effectively, helps Carl focus outside of being a chef, and brings him back to being the young(ish) tyro he was ten years before. It’s these scenes that give the movie it’s heart, and a couple of minor lapses aside, make for often touching viewing. There’s plenty of humour here too, with Favreau’s script hitting the funny bone with impressive ease. There’s a pleasing mix of situational comedy, quirky one-liners (“Come here, amuse-douche”), and visual gags, all seamlessly integrated into the whole, and the cast judge their performances accordingly, the obvious fun they’re having with the material easily transferring itself to the audience; it’s just infectious.
There are some minor quibbles – Johansson’s character is jettisoned halfway through without a backward glance, Carl behaves stupidly towards his son until his behaviour appears stupid for the sake of it, Riva is unnecessarily antagonistic towards Carl (especially the second time) – but for the most part Favreau gets it just right, balancing the comedy and the light drama with aplomb, engaging the audience from the outset with likeable characters and familiar situations that leave the viewer smiling in affectionate recognition. He’s also an unselfish director, knowing when to let his cast take the lead in a scene, and giving a largely unshowy performance himself. Leguizamo and Cannavale make a great double act in the restaurant kitchen, Vergara adds just the right amount of sophisticated glamour, and Downey Jr almost steals the movie with his portrayal of an entrepreneur with cleanliness issues.
It would be easy to dismiss Chef as a feel good movie that never really makes Carl’s situation too dramatic, and there’s certainly large swathes of the movie that are both predictable and overly familiar, but again, it’s Favreau’s adept handling of the material that makes Chef so enjoyable, so much so that any reservations are swiftly cancelled (excuse the pun).
Rating: 8/10 – to borrow a title from Queens of the Stone Age, Chef is “the feel good hit of the summer”, a warmly funny celebration of food and its overriding importance in one man’s life; a treat indeed and one that should be returned to as often as possible.