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Chef (Review)

Boyardees actors having a good time...

Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is at the top of his game, working for one of the most popular restaurants in town. When he feels that the restaurant’s owner is stifling his creativity, he decides to quit and start his own food truck. Beginning from scratch, Carl must rebuild his life, his career, and, in particular, his overly-strained relationship with a young son whose idolizes his father despite always being kept at a distance.

The latest writing/directing/acting effort from Jon Favreau can certainly be seen as a return to his roots after playing in the Hollywood game for a while. It’s a much more personal story than we’ve seen from him in many years, but it never comes across as a vanity project. In fact, the entire movie can be seen as a metaphor for Favreau’s career: a young up-and-comer hits it out of the box his first time around, so the big-wigs come calling. After tiring of answering to the higher-ups, he decides to chuck it all out and go back to where he started. There’s even an absolutely fantastic rant in the film aimed at a food critic, even though I knew darn well that he was talking to those of us who critique films. So, in a sense, you could say that I was referenced in the new film from the director of Iron Man. THAT is going on the resume.

Chef 
Written & Directed by Jon Favreau
Cast Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo
Release Date 9 May 2014
Jason's Grade: B+

One of the film’s strongest through-lines is an emphasis upon technology.  Some of the best bonding moments between father and son here come in the form of impromptu Twitter lessons, a YouTube rant and misguided Tweets drive much of the action, and social media is used as a tool to propel business once the food truck makes its appearance.  There’s even a clever and fun on-screen graphic representation that’s used anytime that someone sends off a message in 140 characters or less.  Chef Carl has never had much need for these advancements, but he quickly learns that he must embrace them if he’s going to succeed in life and career (another movie-length metaphor) and it follows him throughout the entire film.

Acting-wise, Favreau is charming and likeable as the titular chef and handles the character arc that he gives himself quite well.  He also happens to be pretty convincing when it comes to food preparation (a bit of insight into that is given during an end-credits sequence).  Sofia Vergara is great as Carl’s ex-wife in a performance far toned-down from her day job and Scarlet Johansson shines as a co-worker/confidant/friend (with possible benefits).  Between the two, Favreau certainly acquitted himself well here in his choice of former and potential future love-interests for his character.  Almost stealing the show, however, is Emjay Anthony as the pre-teen son.  He shows not an ounce of precociousness in a role that could have easily gone that route.  Whether he’s showing complete adulation towards his father or, moments later, being hurt by the actions of the same man, Anthony sells it completely.

Additional support-work by the always reliable John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale add quite a bit.  Leguizamo, in particular, gives a strong performance as the friend who would follow Carl anywhere.  On the “bad guy” front, Dustin Hoffman as Carl’s boss is appropriately smarmy, but lets a bit of humanity shine through, while Oliver Platt is perfectly slimy as a particularly tough food critic/blogger (with a name that’s a bit TOO on-the-nose)that seems to revel in antagonizing Carl.  The funniest moments in the film come in the form of various single-scene cameos from the likes of Amy Sedaris, Russell Peters, and especially Robert Downey, Jr. in familiar snarky territory.

Favreau’s script serves his troupe well, even if it does play in the familiar.  The film begins with the exact montage that you’d expect from a movie about a chef (although, it does take a bit of a surprising turn at the end) and the majority of the movie follows suit.  Not too much here will be unexpected, but the fact of the matter is that with a story like this, that is perfectly acceptable.  For the most part, it would be a disappointment if the beats fell any other way.  Sure, the lead character’s son begins making a video early on and it has the EXACT result that we expect once it’s finally shown.  But, if it had gone any differently, we would have been disappointed in the outcome.  A few conversations seem written for the sole purpose of setting up their punchlines, and the resolution with one particular antagonist is wrapped a bit too easily and neatly, but we’re having a good time and we’re fully invested by the time he is, so it doesn’t really matter how we reach the ending.  Often, films of this ilk provide plenty of quirkiness for quirk's sake, but, wisely, Favreau avoids that here.  Everything here feels genuine and the dramatic advancements all feel earned.  As a director, Favreau knows when it's best to just stay out of the way and let his script and it's actors do their work, and that's exactly what he does here.

JASON’S FINAL THOUGHTS:

Wholly entertaining and engaging, Chef is a welcome return to Jon Favreau as a filmmaker interested in telling a more personal story.  For the ‘foodies’ out there, at times, it feels like eight different Food Network shows rolled into one, as there are plenty of lovingly-shot close-ups of slicing, dicing, grilling, flipping, saucing, and, if I'm not mistaken, even an instance or two of mincing.  Ultimately, however, this is the story of a man who was once pre-destined and determined to be a constant disappointment to his son, but is now intent on fixing his past mistakes and winning his way back into the hearts of his estranged family.  Great performances by the father-son duo, solid support work from the rest of the cast, a funny and touching script, and revitalized direction combine into a feel-good, taste-good comedy/drama.  Word of warning (that I'm sure you'll hear from 78% of the reviews, so I won't even pretend that I'm being clever or original): don't see the film on an empty stomach.  The camera loves the food in this film and every bit of it looks more delicious than the last.

by Jason Howard

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