Chef (2014) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, including some suggestive references
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman
Small role: Robert Downey Jr., Amy Sedaris
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Jon Favreau
Review published May 27, 2014
It's not a coincidence that Jon Favreau (Cowboys & Aliens, Iron Man 2), who started off as an independent filmmaker with some promise and would eventually struggle to explore his creativity in the Hollywood system, would choose to use the world of professional cooking for his metaphor. Both industries have "artists" whose skill can put butts in seats, whether they be in a theater or a restaurant. Both often have people in charge of what the chef creates, whether it is a studio head or a restaurant owner. And both are full of pompous artists and puffed-up egos who think they know what people really want, if only there were a chance to actually create something good, new or different, but mass appeal seems to be the enemy of the sublime.
Favreau stars as Los Angeles-based chef Carl Casper, the head culinary maestro of a popular upscale restaurant that prides itself on delivering the finest crowd-pleasing morsels for an audience looking for a great, conventional dining experience. When word reaches the restaurant that a major food critic (Platt, Chinese Zodiac) is going to come by for a review, Casper wants to really wow him in his seat with his best stuff -- stuff that's not on the menu -- but the owner of the restaurant, Riva (Hoffman, Little Fockers), puts his foot down because he doesn't want to change what he knows works well. The critic lambastes Casper for not living up to his promise because he is content to serve up boring entrees, which results in the two starting a feud on Twitter that goes viral. Their spat eventually culminates in a public meltdown that puts Casper in the position of sucking up his criticism and do what he gets paid to do, or to start over somewhere else and see if he can live up to the potential he knows he has for himself.
Favreau is in top form with Chef, which is pleasing to the palate , with just about everything is handled with consummate care and the touch of a true professional. Favreau blends the sumptuous sight of a variety of delectable cuisines with fantastic music of various regions that set the proper table for the poignant, smart and often very funny comedy moments sprinkled generously throughout. Obviously with a film like this, it goes almost without saying that one shouldn't attempt to view this on an empty stomach without the ability to pause, as this will no doubt cause a few rumbling tummies from all of the sumptuous dishes that are liberally on display.
If there is anything to complain about, it's the fact that Favreau does undercut the main theme of the movie by making decisions that will help market it successfully, rather than go for what might work best. The main thing one can call out is the casting of a couple of the world's biggest sex symbols as his main squeezes, starting with Sofia Vergara (Fading Gigolo, Machete Kills) as his ex-wife, and Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin, Captain America 2) as his occasional short-term girlfriend Molly, who works in the restaurant as a hostess. Not that women don't often look past the physical when it comes to men they find attractive, especially a man who is as passionate and successful (and can cook) as Carl, but in this movie, they all seemed a mismatch in many ways, including the difference in attractiveness. Perhaps opposites really do attract?
The R-rating may be misleading to some people, as this is pretty much a family film with a potty mouth. There is a mild scene involving characters smoking a joint, and one in which a 10-year-old boy has his first taste of a beer (he doesn't like it). If this doesn't bother you, and you think your children can handle some F-bombs, it's really a heartwarming film about a father and son who find a way to finally bond in the course of trying to fix some of the stagnancy, career and otherwise, in Carl's life. It's really a sweet-natured and very gentle movie underneath the occasionally rude language.
The first ninety minutes of the film are where the heart and soul are at, before Chef descends into the kind of crowd-pleasing formula that would easily please a studio head who might have examined the work. But, it's hard to complain, because usually the final course is the dessert, which caps off the heavier entrees with something more delicate and pleasing. Favreau has delivered a full-course meal of a movie that few, even those who regularly feast on junk food, could think wasn't a tasty and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Let's just hope it can find that special audience willing to try something off of the traditional menu.
©2014 Vince Leo