Being a movie about food, it’s not surprising that Chef leaves you feeling full. It’s kind, easy to take in, and luxuriates in the fact that it isn’t what writer/director/actor Jon Favreau has been known for in the past, namely the first two Iron Man films and Cowboys & Aliens. It packs in the stars, but it spends its time making sure you slow down and enjoy its offerings.
Favreau plays Miami-born Carl Casper, a celebrity chef working for a terribly disagreeable restaurant owner. The boss, played by Dustin Hoffman, wants Casper to play it safe with his dishes while he wants to try new things when a food critic comes to sample the chef’s fare. Long story short: Casper gets panned, has a meltdown, ends up basically unemployable, and flies with his amiable ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) back to his hometown to find his roots, which includes opening a food truck and deciding to embark on a sizable journey.
This is the setup, and Chef takes its time getting there. It last, honestly, about 50-percent longer than most other films would let its first act linger, but that’s part of the movie’s charm. Or it will be what you absolutely hate about it. If you find yourself thinking about what you’re doing after the credits before Casper even makes it into a food truck, you probably won’t like what else Chef has to offer.
But it makes sense. You may find a lot of other people noting that this slight indie turn is a return to Favreau’s roots, a parallel to his character’s rediscovery of what he lost working as a big shot in Los Angeles. Opening the premiere in Austin, Texas, for SXSW, Favreau took to the stage to say it is a very personal film, though not specifying why.
Taken in this context, of course he would take his time getting where he wants to go with the story. Perhaps a response to his own time living and working at a breakneck, triple-A pace of Iron Man‘s adventures and cowboys fighting aliens and his output being manipulated and panned in a single, deft move by a broken industry, it only seems right Favreau would dwell on the things he finds important this time and not what anyone else does.
This includes the aforementioned, protracted introduction to the crux of the plot; steeping scenes in the flavor of local establishments in places like New Orleans and Austin; and just reveling in a performance by Gary Clark, Jr. in a barbecue joint in the Texas capital. (And seeing the SXSW crowd cheer for Franklin Barbecue was a great joy to be had.) It’s like a long missing friend taking you by the hand and saying hey, let’s find what we lost. It’s a powerful notion, albeit a divisive one when put into practice.
Part of what makes the dawdling so agreeable is the performances by the noteworthy cast. Perhaps the most prominent is Emjay Anthony as Casper’s 11-year-old son Percy. He looks up to his father, and despite his desire to fulfill whatever ideals his son holds of him, Casper realizes a connection has been lost in lieu of his then-growing, now-ruined career. Anthony just feels natural, slotted into an already personal film as if he was an internal consideration of relations manifested.
His ability to riff with Favreau and John Leguizamo, Casper’s sous-chef and friend, is remarkable. In fact, if you recall Iron Man, Favreau imbued the humongous project with a decidedly indie flair by relying—somewhat by necessity, some by choice—on improvisation. And he has filled Chef with more actors that seem perfect for Favreau’s brand of “let’s see what we can do” production.
Among them, of course, is Robert Downey, Jr., who provides another entry into his collection of scene-stealing roles as Casper’s ex-wife’s first husband. Scarlett Johansson is impactful and charming in her rather brief appearance as a hostess at Casper’s old restaurant. Bobby Cannavale as the ostensible antagonist brings depth and humanity to the whole proceeding. And Amy Sedaris, well, does what she does so well.
The plot of the movie itself ends up almost exactly where you’d expect, but that doesn’t stop it from accomplishing what Elf showed Favreau was capable of; instilling a big heart into an even bigger film. And now he has put a huge heart into a small film, and it’s bursting so good. Much like Frozen from last year, most of Chef is geared towards positivity. The bad guy isn’t even that bad and, on the occasion, charming.
Most telling is Favreau’s actual performance. For as much renown as he receives for being a great director and writer, we often forget he has some impressive on-screen chops as well. Casper could have easily been a bumbling sack of sadness, but he turns him into a resolute, broken-but-fixable, intelligent, emotive fellow.
That’s important to note, seeing has how this is possibly a more or less direct line to Favreau’s heart of recent years. This is not a vindictive take on the criticism of his big budget work or that a studio guided his hand so much in his vision. It’s that he was frustrated with his prolonged stand against such harsh, uncaring winds. He’s not angry at them; he’s angry at himself.
And then we watch him show us this discovery and his heart, filling little by little with a spirit long dormant. We have a predictable story and a lingering, nigh sprawling film, but it’s a plate upon which we are served a heartfelt nod to what we miss from the Favreau of old. Swingers. Made. And now Chef. Take the time to make the trip with him, and you’ll find one of the best Favreau has to offer.
Final Score: 8 out of 10