On one hand Jon Favreau’s Chef is a light, easy to please comedy, a soft rock song that doesn’t want to offend anybody. On the other, it’s vacuous, middlebrow food porn with its director unable to keep his subtext from leaping to the surface. Writer/director Favreau stars as the titular chef, and he’s joined by some famous friends like Sofia Vergara, Robert Downey Jr., John Leguizamo, and Scarlet Johansson in this tale of a cook who lost his way working in the corporate world of restaurants. My review of the Blu-ray of Chef follows after the jump.
Carl Casper (Favreau) is a once promising chef who was lauded by the critics, but has become worn down by his boss Riva (Dustin Hoffman) who wants him to churn out the same thing over and over again. This seems sort of weird as you would think that his boss would let him at least have specials or something to spice up the menu, a ten percent variant, but that’s not what the film is about. Top food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) comes to the restaurant one night and gives the food two stars, suggesting that Carl has slipped into mediocrity. Unaware of things like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook (it seems), Carl is shocked to find out that the review has gone viral, and so Carl joins twitter, gets angry, and asks Ramsey to come back to the restaurant for round two. But Riva insists that he serve the exact same food, and so Carl gets let go.
Carl has a son Percy (Emjay Anthony) who feels like he’s being ignored, and wants Carl to get back together with his ex-wife Inez (Vergara). Now that Carl is unemployed he decides to go to Florida with his ex-wife and son to get a food truck from Inez’s other ex-husband Marvin (Downey Jr.). With the help of his former coworker Martin (Leguizamo) and his son, they get the truck into working shape and take it on a trip across America, where the truck becomes super-successful.
Chef is a film about an artist who felt boxed in due to working for corporate interests, only to find freedom by returning to his independent roots (and no, this wasn’t directed by Kevin Smith). Considering that Favreau was coming off a run of the first two Iron Man films, and the disastrous Cowboys and Aliens, and considering that Favreau emerged as a talent because of his work writing Swingers, this is in many ways Favreau’s Clerks 2 as it’s impossible not to read the film as Favreau commenting on his own career. When Carl reads the review, which also takes potshots at the character’s/Favreau’s weight, and how the character eventually rages against his critic(s), you can see that Favreau is essentially commenting on the failure of Cowboys, in that he recognizes that it both is and isn’t his fault. The film is a huge navel gaze and anyone who gives Chef a pass but considers Lena Dunham’s Girls self-indulgent is a misogynist.
Favreau, who never really cracks how to make this story cinematic (though he shoots it in the scope aspect ratio), decided the best thing to do is shoot a lot of montages. Food is made in montage, driving is done in montage, and without them the film would likely run thirty minutes. As these are set to poppy music, the film creates a pleasant sheen and there’s no denying it’s an easy watch. But it’s also pretty graceless and empty as there’s not much conflict, and the second Carl gets the truck up and running, he keeps saying how this is the greatest thing he’s ever done. The relationship between Carl and his kid is all surface level “you don’t pay enough attention to me” stuff that is the fallback for most Hollywood movies about hard-working parents (this has been a trope for over a decade and is often the plot of Eddie Murphy movies). Favreau also gets friends like Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson (who plays his girlfriend in the first section of the film) to show up for a couple scenes to play off him, in sequences that play like the favors they likely were.
Chef would probably be more charming if – as is noted in the big review – it and its director didn’t feel so needy. At times Favreau looks a bit like Louis C.K., who also explores in his art what may be thinly veiled versions of his own life, but C.K. understands incident and plot in a way that Favreau doesn’t, so there’s no complications in Chef to make it more interesting or about much. If you like looking at delicious food being cooked, this is a fine movie, but it seems to reveal Favreau as an artist as someone who has a great need to please, but also wants you to know that he really wants to please you.
Universal presents the film on Blu-ray in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. The presentation is flawless, and Favreau works well with the digital imagery. I’ve seen a number of films recently where you can really see that they were shot digitally, but Favreau and his cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau do solid work here. The set also comes with a DVD and digital copy. The film comes with a commentary by Favreau and co-producer/chef Roy Choi where they talk about making the film and cooking, it’s a light-hearted track that’s fun for what it is, and Favreau is a good talker. Also included are seven deleted and alternate scenes (11 min.) that don’t amount to much.