Saturday, June 14, 2014


 4.5 / 5 

Chef is the movie you always say they don't make anymore.  It's a relief to know they do, and a surprise to know that they can be made by people like this.

The director, Jon Favreau, is better known for mega-budget visual-effects spectacles like Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Elf.  Of course, he made his big mark in Hollywood by acting in and producing Swingers, the quintessential independent breakout hit, and it shows.  The director of Swingers, Doug Liman, went on to seemingly eschew his roots and focus on big-budget action movies like this summer's Edge of Tomorrow, and Chef shows what he (and everyone else) is missing by choosing a diet of fast food.

As both the director and star of Chef, Favreau seems to have tired -- at least momentarily -- of the empty calories.  Chef doesn't feature a single explosion, car chase or computer-generated character.

Interestingly, perhaps because of Favreau's reputation as a really nice guy and terrific director, it does feature gigantic movie stars, some of the biggest, in small, un-flashy roles: Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Sofia Vergara and, briefly, Robert Downey Jr. are among Favreau's co-stars.  Right alongside them are indie-movie regulars John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt and Bobby Cannavale.

You'd expect a casting recipe like that to result in the cinematic equivalent of Olive Garden -- a not-quite-satisfying meal that seems a little too much like junk food but with some culinary aspirations.  Instead, Favreau has worked a little miracle, delivering a frothy, tasty concoction that's delicious, goes down easy and leaves a lingering sweetness behind.

It's also a rarity in the midst of the summer cacophony: A movie in which people who look and behave like real adults experience the kinds of self-doubt and messy lives that will feel familiar to anyone who thinks Dolby Atmos makes movies too loud and 3D glasses don't work too well with corrective lenses.

Chef begins with a man who's lost his way.  Favreau plays Carl Casper, a longtime chef with a passion for food who was once one of the culinary world's brightest stars. Though Chef Carl loves nothing more than experimenting with ingredients, the restaurant's overbearing owner (Hoffman) insists the chef play it safe when a prominent food critic pays a visit.  Disappointed not only at the review but at his own lack of courage in standing up to the owner, Chef Carl not only quits his job in a fit of pique, but goes one step further and launches into a tirade that ends up being a viral Internet sensation -- and not in the good way.

So he finds himself in a crisis of confidence.  Both his ultra-glamorous ex-wife (Vergara) and his sometime romantic interest (Johansson) urge him to return to his roots and open a food truck, but to Chef Carl such a move would only be admitting failure.

Carl also has a bit of a messy personal life.  There's that insanely rich ex-wife (in one of the story's rare missteps, we never find out exactly what it is she does), who despite her trappings has real concern and genuine affection for her former husband.  Together, they have a 10-year-old boy, Percy (the fantastic Emjay Anthony, who avoids every kind of cloying behavior most child actors would bring to the role), who can't hide the way he idolizes his father.

Ultimately, Carl does open the food truck, and naturally it's a hit, because Carl regains his passion, dignity and self-confidence.  If that sounds like I just gave away the plot, rest assured it barely hints at the rich, delightful layers of the movie.

Overstuffed with images that border on food porn, and equally rife with sometimes distracting product placement from Twitter, Facebook and Vine, Chef is, in the end, about a man who has allowed himself to focus so much on his job he has given up on his career, whose attention to what he is has left him disconnected from who he is.

Chef contains more than a little middle-aged-male wish fulfillment: The portly Favreau, who gets to make jokes about his weight in the movie, is seemingly irresistible to women who look like they haven't eaten more than a celery stick in the past few years, and inevitably music-filled montages make hard, back-breaking labor look like little more than a fun lark.  (There's also the issue, which I found it hard to overlook, that no one in the kitchen seems to wash their hands.)

But those little annoyances are like finding a couple of seeds in an otherwise impeccably prepared and presented meal.  They just prove that real people labored mightily to create the concoction.  In an so-far disappointing summer of sameness, it's a charming and altogether tasty proof of a beating heart among filmmakers.  Chef is one of the can't-miss movies of the year.

Viewed June 14, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


1 comment:

  1. We really loved it as well. Best movie we've seen this year so far.