A film review by Craig J. Koban June 20, 2014

RANK: #17

CHEF jjjj

2014, R, 115 mins.


Jon Favreau as Carl Casper  /  John Leguizamo as Martin  /  Bobby Cannavale as Tony  /  Emjay Anthony as Percy  /  Scarlett Johansson as Molly  /  Dustin Hoffman as Riva  /  Sofía Vergara as Inez  /  Oliver Platt as Ramsey Michel  /  Amy Sedaris as Jen  /  Robert Downey Jr. as Marvin

Written and directed by Jon Favreau

To many lay filmgoers, Jon Favreau is probably best known for directing big summer blockbusters like the first two IRON MAN films and COWBOYS AND ALIENS.  

In my mind, the actor/director was always at his finest in low-key indie fare playing loveable losers that have both everything and nothing to lose.  People seem to forget that Favreau cut his teeth in the industry writing and starring in 1996’s SWINGERS – still, to this day, one of my favorite comedies of that decade – where he showed a strong penchant for penning snappy dialogue and wonderfully idiosyncratic characters.  I will always remember – with equal parts reverence and cringe-inducing discomfort – a notorious scene in SWINGERS where he made a serious of unpardonable blunders trying to win over the affection of a girl…by leaving her message after message on her answering machine. 

I miss this Favreau of old; the one that soulfully invested himself in his downtrodden characters and even more so in his thanklessly well written screenplays.  It’s been a decade-plus since he made something delectably small scale and dare I say personal (his last scripted effort in this vein would be 2001’s MADE).  So, it was with great eagerness to see Favreau write, direct, and star in CHEF, which is, suffice to say, a rather proud and triumphant return to the type of low-budget indie roots that helped give the star a career.  The film chronicles the ups and downs of a Miami-born cook that has been hit by hard times, but then has to reinvigorate himself as a culinary artist in a highly unlikely and different venue.  Not only is CHEF an exquisite rendering of the psychology of the food lover, but it also manages to be a thoughtful and endearing father/son drama as well as a wonderfully involving travelogue picture.  And at the heart of its all is Favreau, once again playing a browbeaten schmuck that has to rise to the occasion.  He - and the rest of the sublime cast assembled around him - bring truth to just about every scene they occupy in the film. 



Carl Casper (Favreau) may fail at many things in life, but he’s an unqualified master in the kitchen.  His cutting board is his canvas.  Over the years, Carl has firmly established himself as a risk-taking, but brilliantly skilled chef that has won accolades from many critics, especially a prestigious one, Ramsey (Oliver Platt), a blogger that gave Carl glowing reviews in his early career.  Now, Carl wishes to wow the critic over again with a new avant-garde menu, which is a hit with his fellow colleagues, but not so much with the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman), who matter-of-factly orders Carl to make his menu of safe, customer friendly meals and to “be an artist on his own time.”  Forced into a position he was not prepared for, Carl begrudgingly prepares his boss’ menu…which is not greeted well by the critic, whom gives the dejected chef a very unflattering review. 

This sends Carl into an anger filled frenzy, which forces him to go on the offensive.  At the advice of his 10-year-old social media savvy son Percy (Emjay Anthony), Carl creates his own Twitter page in hopes of defending himself, but since he’s an ignorant greenhorn in the relative public aspect of tweeting, he accidentally posts a hostile rant against the critic.  Things gets complicated really fast when he further admonishes Ramsey in front many patrons in the restaurant, which is captured on cell phone cameras and posted online.  Left without a job, Carl feels like his options to further explore a career as an inventive and audacious chef are over.  At the advice of his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara), Carl goes on a pilgrimage to Miami with her and their son, where he re-discovers his love for Cuban sandwiches.  This leads to a chance meeting with Inez’s ex-husband, Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) who offers Carl a fixer-upper food truck, which Carl purchases and then overhauls with his son and friend Martin (John Leguizamo) to become a traveling Cuban sandwich take-out joint. 

It could easily be said that CHEF is not a profound film about its subject matter…but it really isn’t trying to be.  Great films don’t have to be thematically weighty to be truly memorable.  CHEF is a film of simple messages and pleasures.  It’s about mending relationships that have been tainted.  It’s about the primal celebration of the power of food and the intrinsically adept hands-on approach that chefs employ to make their dishes to so sumptuous to eat (don’t go into CHEF on an empty stomach).  It’s also, I think, about the healing power of food and how it brings people together when they feel they’re at their worst in life.  In many ways, CHEF could also be aptly labeled as symbolic of its own writer/director’s career trajectory as of late.  Like Carl’s emotional journey, Favreau seems to have a deep yearning to go back to his more artistically satisfying roots and make a film for himself and own needs, which adds a whole other tantalizing layer of fascination in CHEF. 

More importantly, Favreau is such an underrated writer when it comes to creating authentically drawn characters that spontaneously live in the moment, and he’s greatly benefited from his eclectically assembled cast (some of whom include IRON MAN alumni).  Hoffman, in his brief role, seems more relaxed and poised on screen than he has been in years.  Scarlett Johansson also has a nice turn as a fellow restaurant colleague/friend of Carl’s that seems easily seduced by his exquisite recipes.  Robert Downey Jr. has great instincts for playing Marvin as a man that seems to have dozens of different thoughts verbally expressed at the same time at any given moment (his scenes with Favreau are masterfully droll).  Sofia Vergara is nicely understated in her role of Carl’s ex-wife that wants him to empower him after personal failure and embarrassment.  Young Emjay Anthony commands himself rather well and naturally inhabits scenes playing opposite Favreau and Leguizamo, a trait that’s often lost on child performers.  

Then there’s Favreau himself, and he perhaps doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being a strong actor in his own right.  Carl is not an easily likeable figure.  He makes categorical blunders in the film, is sometimes self-aggrandizing and lost in a sea of his own importance, and frequently dismisses his son as an unwanted nuisance in his life.  Yet, Favreau is adept enough as an actor to portray Carl with an emotional honesty that’s kind of refreshing.  He starts the film as a somewhat egomaniacal control freak, but gradually learns the error of his ways and finds comfort in more modest pleasures.  His traveling Cuban sandwich truck liberates him, so to speak, from his more undesirable needs and leanings in life, not to mention that it allows an outlet for him to become closer with his semi-estranged son.  In a way, traveling and food become therapy for Carl and a bonding agent with his son.  

CHEF is a terrifically envisioned and realized road picture as well; the film traverses from New Orleans to Austin as Carl, Martin and Percy explore the business potential of their new investment, and manage to find personal satisfaction and fulfillment along the way.  Of course, Favreau also lovingly showcases CHEF as…stunning food porn.  This film is pure, unadulterated eye candy for aficionados of fine cuisine and it shows an impeccable amount of respect for all of the minutia of what chefs go through to prepare the ultimate meal.  The struggle that Carl goes through is that of trying to remain relevant and creative in an industry that specializes in repetitive and profitable safety nets.  Favreau, in many ways, has explored a similar path in his directorial career helming audience placating tentpole films, which makes CHEF emerge as such a sharply made and appetizingly charming original for him.  The film is simply drawn, yes, but it manages to become something deeper and more thoughtful along the way.  Like the finest of comfort food, CHEF is a dish that's really, really hard not to love.

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