“You’re never going to be happy cooking for someone else.”
Chef is exactly what you think that it would be. And that’s nothing against it. This is as enjoyable a film as I have seen recently. I laughed, salivated, and seriously thought about the cost of artistic perfection in pursuit of self-fulfillment. It’s a good summer movie, and one that is fairly family friendly, save for a few scenes loaded with cursing. One couple in my theater left after twenty minutes, and to be honest I don’t blame them. The first half slugs along inch by inch, but once it kicks into gear, you’ll be happy that you stayed along for the ride. Stuff yourself beforehand. The food looks amazing, and the story almost catches up to it. In restaurant terms, this is no Michelin rated kind of movie, but that’s not what it strives to be. You have to taste it for yourself.
Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is the head chef at a successful Los Angeles restaurant. He’s considered a rebel in the food industry, coming up with daring concoctions and putting his own distinct spin on dishes. But as he progresses into his career, and adulthood, he loses that individuality and night after night cooks the same safe menu assembled by his owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman). That doesn’t work for Carl. A predominant food blogger named Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) comes to review the restaurant. He heralded Carl as a youngster. Carl spends the day crafting a special menu, but ultimately is told by Riva to stick to the menu and “play the hits.” He does, and the result it catastrophic. The review slams the restaurant, makes fun of Carl, and leads to him leaving his job, as well as publicly berating the critic.
All the while, Carl is living the newly divorced life from his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara). She’s successful and lives in a beautiful home while Carl retreats to his ordinary apartment every evening. They share custody of their son Percy (Emjay Anthony), who clearly yearns to spend more time with his father. His requests are met with “I have to work on the menu” and “You can’t be in the kitchen because of the language.” Videos of Carl’s tirade against Ramsey land online, making it impossible for him to get another job despite his formidable talent in the kitchen. Inez pities him, and suggests that while she returns to her birthplace in Miami for a work trip that Carl tags along and looks after Percy. He’s a chef, not a babysitter Carl replies. But it’s clear that in spite of their separation there is a wick still burning between them. She has a hidden agenda.
Miami, the consummate potluck destination, sets the scene for the movie to take shape. The story, as well as the imagery, finally catches up to all of the delectable food we encounter throughout. It’s vibrant, lively, and entertaining. Some persuasion by Inez, and a classic Cuban sandwich, inspires Carl to get a food truck unsurprisingly named “El Jefe.” That way he can make the food that HE wants to make. And it doesn’t hurt that it brings him closer to his son. Joined by Percy and his former coworker Martin (John Leguizamo), the trio start traveling the country, heading back to Los Angeles and serving food at each stop. The story really doesn’t have a buildup of moments but instead feels like a matter-of-fact depiction. It makes you believe that if you had the exact same journey, you’d have the exact same results.
As Carl, Favreau dominates the screen. The writer / director of this movie has talent with a knife and an obvious appetite for real, gourmet cuisine. He totally embodies the character. Either that or he isn’t acting all that much, but rather just publicly portraying a more personal side of himself. The actors, and that includes the appetizing food, thrive in this independent film atmosphere. Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale, who plays Tony, Carl’s eventual replacement, bring the comedy relief. The worst comes from Hoffman as the restaurant owner. He appears to constantly look off screen for his lines. It’s a regrettable showing from one of the all time greats.
Another disappointment is Scarlett Johansson as hostess Molly. She delivers a good performance, but it’s not needed whatsoever. Instead it neutralizes a story already hindered by uneven pacing and development. Also, I think one of the key problems was the role of social media. Twitter is constantly mentioned throughout. It helps bring Carl closer to his tech savvy son, but derails the old school chef persona that the film initially creates. We don’t care about what Carl is tweeting or posting online. There are other ways conflict could have been instigated and I wish Favreau would have sought them.
At one point, Carl stands with his son in front of a street performer with a marionette. We know he feels like a puppet in the beginning…it’s a metaphor that’s been used in film for ages. But his food truck helps him become Geppetto, and his mouthwatering food is his own rendering of Pinocchio. As a food lover and avid cook, I’d say this film feels like a history in the culinary arts. Even more, it instills passion to do what you really want. Why be successful at something you hate when you can fail at something you love. Fail miserably, over and over, and you might just figure out the key ingredient for success.
It’s hard to review a movie that so heavily condemns those who pursue a profession in criticism. It’s like sitting down for a stranger’s Thanksgiving feast, realizing that what you have to say about the meal to some extent disregards the effort put into making it. That’s undeniable. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it and still be insightful. All things can be judged subjectively. The third act illustrates this enlightenment. It ends way too hastily, but that doesn’t lessen how satisfying it is. Chef, like a great meal, ultimately is about balance. Life resembles lady justice, so easily tipping one way or the other. You have to find that equilibrium no matter the circumstances. It‘s an incomplete meal, but in spurts, you’ll think you’ve never tasted anything better.
“I get to touch people’s lives with what I do. And I love it. And I want to share this with you.”
Rating: 4 out of 5