As a critic, it's impossible to watch Jon Favreau's Chef and not feel like he is speaking directly to you. I don't mean in some abstract manner. Chef puts critics on blast, as its plot pivots on the push-and-pull relationships of critics and creators. But it doesn't just lash out at critics. Chef also recognizes what critics and creative hold in common. It's a strange thing to feel called out and ultimately understood. But Favreau has always been a filmmaker with a generous spirit and depth. It's great to see him get back into a film that allows him to show it.
Written, directed and starring Jon Favreau, Chef feels like a thinly veiled biopic. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a chef who built his reputation making incredible food by his own rules. But its main plot picks up 10 years later. Carl no longer is the cutting-edge bad boy, but an executive chef responsible for the success of an expensive Los Angeles restaurant. He still yearns to tantalize his customers with thrilling new flavors, but his hands are tied by the restaurant's owner (Dustin Hoffman), who pays the bills but lacks vision.
Their conflict comes to a head when a food blogger (Oliver Platt) comes to review Carl's menu. Predictably, he writes a harsh (actually cruel) review that pushes Carl to lash out in a public confrontation that gets him fired, kills his prospects, and forces him to take it back to basics. So, with the help of his friends and family, he opens a food truck and reconnects to what inspired him to be a chef in the first place.
It’s a story that--aside from some flourishes like a precocious kid and a drool-inducing attention to food prep--closely mirrors Favreau's own. He broke onto the filmmaking scene in 1996 as the writer and star of the independent hit Swingers. From there he made a name as a director with such whimsical adventures as Elf, Zathura and Iron Man. But then came Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, movies that were fun, but earned Favreau some critical sneers. With Chef, he gives critics his response, explaining through Carl's story that sometimes you are forced to do the best you can within the parameters of financiers demands. It's not that your passion has died. It's not that you don't care. And critics saying as much, well, that fucking hurts.
Favreau also shows how criticism benefits creators because it is the food blogger's scathing review that pushes Carl to take risks and rediscover his muse. Chef reminds us that in the end critics and creatives want the same thing: we both want great art, be it food or movies. And while I don't agree with the tone of the food blogger's review--which was peppered with personal attacks--I understood his motivation to write it. Because when you are a fan of an artist--be they a chef or a filmmaker--and they produce something that is profoundly disappointing, it feels like an insult. It can feel personal. Basically, it works both ways. And Favreau's understanding of that makes Chef surprisingly cathartic for both sides.
But maybe you don't care about metaphors or mirrors. Maybe you just want a movie that's fun and heartwarming. Well, Chef definitely succeeds on that front too. Its full of passion and spirit, and reminded me of Favreau's early days, when his films weren't bogged down by special effects and a dizzying roster of characters. Chef is light, jaunty and funny. Favreau grounds us with his big-hearted hero, and pulls us in tight with an excellent ensemble that boasts John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara, Robert Downey Jr. and Emjay Anthony, the rare child actor who actually seems like a kid and not sickeningly saccharine screenplay concoction. This cast plays together with an easy familiarity that helps the film zing along as Carl bounces from bad luck to food truck to life lessons and love. It's a rousing story, and a totally charming cast of characters. What's not to like?
All in all, Chef is a stripped down comedy that manages to speak volumes about Favreau while delivery an entertaining ride for those just looking for a movie, not a message. It's a total joy to watch. But one tip: make dinner plans for after, because you will walk away ravenous.
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