Jon Favreau very clearly has something he’s eager say in his latest directorial endeavor, Chef, but there’s no harm in letting him use the film to express his feelings when he’s doing so in a highly entertaining and motivating manner.
Carl Casper (Favreau) is a talented chef working in a popular Los Angeles restaurant. The problem is, it’s not his restaurant and the owner is afraid of losing a good thing so demands that Carl push creativity aside in order to maintain their clientele with the familiar menu. When a popular food critic calls Carl out for playing it safe and sticking to the same old dishes, Carl loses his temper in the midst of a packed night and winds up an Internet sensation. Trouble is, Internet infamy doesn’t equal job opportunities and now, the only way for Carl to clear his name and get back on his feet is by taking the plunge and finally trying to do things his way – in a food truck. Hit the jump for my full review of Chef from the SXSW Film Festival.
We might as well address that elephant in the room right off the bat; just ahead of Chef‘s SXSW world premiere, Favreau took the stage and dubbed it a very personal film and it’s easy to see why he calls it that. Chef is essentially Favreau’s way of expressing how he feels about pouring his heart and soul into a movie, only to have the piece torn apart by critics. It’s incredibly heavy-handed, but he still manages to present that blunt plea in a relatable and highly entertaining fashion.
Carl consumes your attention right from the start. He’s got some serious flaws, but he’s a fun, lovable guy that you want to see succeed, and if you’ve ever believed in a personal endeavor to the utmost extent, it’s only natural to connect. No matter your profession – and no matter what Favreau is really getting at with this narrative – it’s effortless to understand where Carl’s coming from. He wants to be a good father, but is distracted by his demanding job and then at work, it’s meet his boss’ demands or get the boot. You know that Carl is capable of so much more, but get why he caves and serves the regular menu and, in turn, understand and feel his devastation after getting hit with the abysmal review.
Even though Favreau always keeps the effects of that inciting incident in the background, he also maintains a proper balance of fun and heart. Chef is a long one, clocking in at 115 minutes, but Favreau establishes this rip-roaring pace backed by a highly appropriate sound track that will send you into each new scene with a palpable jolt of energy. Bolstering that momentum further is the fact that the story and the characters are both a pleasure to track.
This is an interesting, engaging and often mesmerizing world that you’ll fall for the moment you see Favreau whipping up the very first of a variety of dishes. It’s a working environment brimming with passion and politics, and it’s highly engaging watching Carl attempt to manage both so he can have a career with stability and fulfillment. The narrative does lag the slightest bit at the midpoint when Carl decides to leave LA behind for a quick trip to Miami and the script loses its focus, but as soon as he gets his hands on that food truck and he’s back to being a man on a mission, the film takes off with even more momentum than before.
Favreau’s also got himself a stellar ensemble here. Scarlett Johansson actually manages to lose herself in the role of Carl’s hostess in the original restaurant. The role isn’t just a flashy cameo like Robert Downey Jr.‘s over-the-top portrayal of Carl’s wife’s other ex-husband, but rather, Johansson is working with a layered supporting player that in no way relies on a famous face, but rather honesty and how she enhances our main man. Sofia Vergara steps in as Carl’s ex-wife and does show off quite a bit of her familiar bold, brash humor, but she also manages to sell her character as a responsible, loving mother. However, she still is one of the film’s more predictable components.
The big winners on the supporting roster are John Leguizamo and Emjay Anthony. Leguizamo plays one of Carl’s dedicated employees from the old restaurant that decides to take a chance and join him on this food truck endeavor. Similar to Vergara, his character is familiar and is essentially the same guy from start to finish, however, whereas Vergara pops up intermittently, Leguizamo’s character is so well woven into the script, he becomes essential to the tone and environment established in the second half of the film. Anthony has a similar effect as Carl’s son, Percy. Percy’s got that adorable, innocent kid effect, but he’s also got some serious bite. He’s mature and smart, and that sparks a number of amusing and less likely back-and-forths with his father. Carl may be the expert chef, but Percy’s got skills of his own and Favreau embraces that, letting Anthony turn his character into a vital component of the story rather than just a cute prop.
It’s very fair to point a finger at Chef for being an overdone attempt at sending a personal message and there are very few surprises in the narrative, but what’s wrong with that when the film works so well? Simply put, Chef is a pleasure. The jokes are on point, the material is interesting, the characters are all highly likable and, to top it all off, you truly walk out with the determination to believe in yourself and fight for your passion.
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