Chef Comedy

Full Course Film Review: Chef

June 6, 2014Ben MK

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A delicious comedy with a side order of heart

By Ben Mk

When director Jon Favreau took his leave from helming Marvel's Iron Man franchise, one might have suspected that he was suffering from a case of superhero fatigue. But as it turns out, he was just getting back to basics. That didn't quite pan out with his follow-up film, Cowboys & Aliens; but his latest film, Chef, is the real deal, signalling a true return to form for the former indie actor and filmmaker who left his mark on cult cinema with the sleeper hits Swingers and Made. This time, he's playing a character who's older, not necessarily wiser and still very much the underdog.

Favreau is Carl Casper, head chef at a trendy L.A. eatery run by demanding restauranteur Riva (Dustin Hoffman, in a small role). But both the restaurant and Carl have seen better days. Once the toast of Miami's culinary scene, Carl now finds himself in a "creative rut", compromising his vision to meet the expectations of upper management. His situation is made even worse when Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), the most well-respected food critic in LA, publicly laments Carl's descent into mediocrity in a scathing review (being especially spiteful towards his "undercooked" molten lava cake).

Carl's personal life isn't faring much better. As a divorced father who shares custody of his young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), with his ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), Carl is far from father of the year. While his relationship with Percy isn't quite on the rocks, he's definitely disconnected from and clueless about pretty much everything in Percy's life, but he's too preoccupied with work to devote any attention to improving matters. The only relationships he seems to be able to cultivate with any hint of success are with his sous-chef, Tony (Bobby Canavale), station chef, Martin (John Leguizamo), and head waitress, Molly (Scarlett Johansson).

Already feeling dejected about his flatlining career, he becomes even more dismayed when he learns that Ramsey's negative review has gone viral and — turning to Twitter to vent his frustration — inadvertently ignites a bitter (and very public) feud with the critic. The vitriolic online spat earns him legions of fans overnight, but it comes to a head with a heated, real-life confrontation, ultimately costing him his job. With his prospects of ever working as a chef again looking grim, Carl agrees to accompany Inez and Percy on a trip to Miami, in the hopes that he'll at least be able to salvage his relationship with his son. And it's there — where he first began his career — that he also finds the unexpected inspiration to rebuild it from the ground up, by way of his very own "El Jefe" food truck.

From there, the film morphs into a coast-to-coast road movie, as Favreau takes Carl and El Jefe from the sun-drenched boardwalks of Miami all the way back to L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard (with a few stopovers in-between). It's just one of the ways that the writer/director manages to transform the relatively safe and predictable underdog storyline into something fresh and tasty. Favreau also stirs in a heaping spoonful of father-son bonding, flavoring it with a dash of machismo and seasoning the results with an infectiously soulful and spicy soundtrack (inspired by everything from Miami's Little Havana to New Orleans' Bourbon Street). For the finishing touches, he tops it off with a dusting of self-referential humor, making light of his (character's) "dramatic" weight gain and riling about (food) critics being excessively harsh on his life's work.

Though he's come to be known as a sidekick on-screen, Favreau's first leading role in thirteen years will easily win over audiences. And even though his usual partner-in-crime, Vince Vaughn, is M.I.A., the motor-mouthed Leguizamo fills Vaughn's oversized shoes amiably. For her part, Vergara — whose outspoken role on ABC's Modern Family has made her into something like the equivalent of this decade's Fran Drescher — tones down her boisterous persona, and both she and Anthony excel at grounding the film's subtle portrayal of domestic dischord. The rest of the performances are also something to savor, with Robert Downey Jr. and (an extremely tanned, almost unreognizable) Amy Sedaris joining Hoffman, Platt and Johansson in lending their comic talents to the trove of smaller roles and cameos.

Of course, no review of Chef would be complete without dishing about the mouth-watering cuisine on display for our viewing pleasure. From beignets to cubanos, it's a foodie's film fantasy come true. Favreau is absolutely merciless when it comes to titillating our taste buds, even bringing renowned L.A.-based chef and restauranteur Roy Choi — who himself rose to fame with his Kogi food truck — on board as the film's culinary consultant, to add that extra layer (or three) of authenticity. As a result, all of Carl's culinary creations — even the molten lava cake that Ramsey Michel so passionately despises — don't just look good enough to eat, they look delectable beyond belief. Consider it fair warning: if you're not hungry going into the theater, you will be by the time you leave.

The Bottom Line

Like food, some films are guilty pleasures, full of empty calories. But Chef is just a pleasure to watch, through and through. Once you dig into it, you'll find that its ingredients are nothing out of the ordinary, but it's how Jon Favreau combines them that makes all the difference. It's the mark of a fine chef — or in this case, a fine writer/director/actor — to be able to make something more than simply the sum of its parts. Chef isn't just a feel-good movie for your soul, it's a nourishing cinematic meal — and it will have you coming back for seconds. [★★★★]

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