Multi-hyphenate Jon Favreau’s new movie Chef — he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film — doesn’t deal in any sort of weighty themes. It’s lightweight fluff, a film of little consequence, and as such, it contains so few of them.
Almost nothing bad happens to the film’s main characters outside of a couple of first-act plot points that set up the story, and one seemingly important character completely vanishes from the film at the halfway mark, never to return, her arc remaining unresolved as the credits roll, white text over black background, with multiple videos of a family celebration playing alongside Spanish music.
Yet, somehow, there is huge payoff in seeing the successes of the characters on-screen. And that, I think, is because Chef is a hugely personal film, not just for Favreau but for all of us in the audience as well. The writer-director-producer-star has served up a story we can all relate to, and like the Miami comfort food its star whips together, it goes down easy.
As many seem to have caught on to by now, the film is a not-so-subtle metaphor for the creation and negative criticism of art, attacks on not just the works themselves but on the artists who bring them to life.
Chef is Favreau’s way of admitting that he lost some creative energy after bringing Iron Man to the big screen, that he became worn down by the studio heads who wouldn’t let him think any further outside the box. It’s also a “screw you” to the critics who tore him apart — not just his films but Favreau as a filmmaker — when Iron Man 2 adhered to superhero movie formula and Cowboys and Aliens was, well, an out-of-this-world dud.
Most of us know when we’ve done poorly, or at least below what we expected of ourselves, and to read or hear such harsh criticism can be damaging to our already bruised egos. After all, many of us are used to being our own harshest critic.
Played by Favreau, who also wrote, co-produced, and directed the film, Carl Casper is a divorcee with a 10-year-old son named Percy, whom he struggles to connect with, opting to take him to the amusement park or the movies instead of bringing him into the kitchen of the restaurant he manages, where Percy really wants to hang out. Carl remains good friends with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and maintains a complicated relationship with his restaurant’s sommelier Molly (Scarlett Johansson), two women who urge him to cook the food he wants instead of sticking to the restaurant’s menu.
But the restaurant’s owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), isn’t so keen on the idea, instead urging Carl to “play the hits” when top critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) comes to town to review the restaurant, its food, and the chef whose career and reputation he helped launch. Carl suffers a scathing review from Mr. Michel, an article that laments not just the food served but the man behind the grill, a once up-and-coming chef who seems to have lost a step as a culinary artist — and gained a few inches around the belly in the process. Carl blows up on Ramsey publicly, loses his job at Riva’s restaurant, and becomes a viral sensation for his expletive-fueled, lava cake-tossing rant.
Jobless with no real career prospects coming to the fore, Carl travels to Miami with his son and ex-wife, convinced to make the trip to bond with his son and find inspiration in the place where his career began — but little does he know, Inez has made arrangements with her other ex-husband (Robert Downey, Jr.) to kickstart the food truck business she’s been urging Carl to start.
Going back to his culinary roots, Carl launches a food truck called El Jefe Cubanos. Joined by son Percy and sous-chef Martin (John Leguizamo), Carl serves up Cuban sandwiches, yuca fries, plantains, and an assortment of other fast-casual items as the trio drives the food truck back to Los Angeles, stopping in several major cities as they look to capitalize on Carl’s newfound fame and sleek new menu to gain a following.
Chef is a lighthearted affair — peppered throughout with a fantastic feel-good soundtrack — but one that makes you so throughly engrossed in Carl’s journey that you want nothing more than for him to succeed. In fact, I sat through the entire thing hoping at each turn that nothing bad would happen to Carl or his new venture — and that, I think, is because Favreau does such a good job at building empathy between the audience and Favreau’s main character.
We all know how it feels to be heavily criticized, and when that happens, the last thing we need is for something else to go south — and that’s how I felt toward Carl for the last 70 minutes of the film. I sat there pleading, “Please don’t let anything bad happen to this guy.”
My only real gripe with the film is that, on a narrative level, it completely fails to bring Molly’s arc to any sort of conclusion. Played by Scarlett Johansson, Molly seems at the outset an important figure in Carl’s life, a person he cares about in some way and one who urges him to start anew. But once Carl leaves for Miami, Molly disappears from the picture, literally, never seen, mentioned, or heard from again.
Yet, somehow, that hardly made an impact on my enjoyment of the film. The rest of the movie is so good that I could overlook that narrative flaw, which is really saying something seeing as it’s a pretty glaring oversight on Favreau’s part.
Beyond an admission of stagnant creativity and a triumphant middle-finger to the “haters”, a term Carl learns from his son, Chef is Favreau’s way of getting himself back on track, of urging his audience (and himself) to follow their dreams, to let their passions and creativity run rampant and lead them down the proper path. Needless to say, Favreau is a man capable of taking his own advice, as Chef is a fine film well worth the price of admission. Just don’t go see it on an empty stomach.
Grade: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: R for language, including some suggestive references
Runtime: 115 minutes