Two decades ago, the same crowd who had been celebrating the burgeoning talents of Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, and Kevin Smith went to check out Doug Liman’s Swingers in the fall of 1996 and discovered a new talent to add to their expanding list: Jon Favreau. Though a co-star alongside a fresh Vince Vaughn (who would also go on to bigger and better things), it was Favreau’s hip screenplay, both effortlessly cool and unequivocally honest, that attracted art house audiences and eventual cultdom. Toss in trendy direction from future action thespian, Doug Liman, and you’ve got a bromantic comedy worthy of canonization; absolute ‘money,’ – in the Favreauvian sense of the word – that has yet to lose its value.
While Swingers will forever swing, Favreau has transitioned into a triple threat writer, actor, and director. Most notably, he helmed the first Iron Man film (and its less than noteworthy sequel) following comedic outings like Elf and Swingers-follow-up, Made. As a pioneer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the North Star to Robert Downey Jr.’s previously burnt out career, Favreau has earned his merit badges while continuing to act throughout his free time and reroute his talents to TV. However, one can only ride the blockbuster train for so long, and after the disaster of Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau relinquished the franchise he began and allowed fan-favorite Shane Black to conclude the Iron Man trilogy. Feeling pushed to the perimeter by his own fanbase, Favreau has retreated back to smaller-scale filmmaking, and with a motivation fueling his efforts and a visible maturity in his technical and on-screen skills, the result is a wide range of flavors with a beating heart, a gifted ensemble cast, and a sincere sense of self. The past twenty years has been a long learning experience for Jon Favreau, and while the newly released Chef is a far cry from the brilliance of Swingers, it consistently redeems itself with how personal it is and how delectable it can be.
We begin in the haze of hecticity as the California Chef du Cuisine, Carl Caspar (Favreau), calculates a proper menu to be served to harsh food critic, Ramsay Michel (Oliver Platt), who will be dining at the celebrated, upscale restaurant of which he oversees. Unfortunately, the stubborn restaurant owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), doesn’t share Carl’s views for artistic dining and demands the chef to cook up the standard menu that he claims “has worked for over five years and will continue to work tonight.” Come Michel’s review, the restaurant is left out of the crossfire because the crosshairs are set on the chef himself, who Michel brands as ‘needy’ and ‘cloying,’ amidst other colorful adjectives. Bent by the published insults, Carl only comes to really understand the extent of Michel’s outreach when Carl’s son presents to him the virtual newspaper of the current generation – a.k.a. Twitter – where the thousands of tweets and re-tweets continue to claw at Carl’s pride. Shortly thereafter, and upon creating the @ChefCarlCaspar twitter account, a casual misunderstanding of the social media tool erupts into a viral battle, then sprawls into an explosive confrontation, and finally leads to the expectant expulsion of the chef from his own restaurant. Now jobless and deflated, the chef is prompted by the restaurant’s hostess (Scarlett Johansson) to take the time and try to rejoin the family that he always put second to work. When he reluctantly joins his son and ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) on a trip to Miami, his experienced taste buds feel the verve of a true Cuban sandwich and Carl decides to finally expand upon the idea that his ex-wife, for years, has been feeding into his head: Own and operate a food truck.
If this sounds substantially less ‘cool’ than Swingers that’s because it is, and because it comes from within a man who is twenty years older than the wannabe Hollywood hotshot who penned Swingers. Favreau has been there and done that now (literally), and the elder version of Favreau who penned Chef’s screenplay is assuredly more seasoned, more experienced, but no less headstrong. Chef comes from Favreau’s emotions, it’s clearly bred on passion and marinated in the filmmaker’s scoff to critics who more or less chipped away at his blockbuster pedestal. This doesn’t mean that Favreau is making Chef out of spite or hoping to make a ceaseless point, but one can’t help but notice the quasi-meta nature of some of the film’s puns and the prickly undercurrent to the character of Chef Carl Caspar, who for better or for worse is a shade of Favreau himself. For instance, there’s a moment where Carl’s weight becomes the topic of conversation, particularly his weight gain. Favreau himself used to be very slim and his evident inflation has become a talking point to which Favreau is hoping to mute. Yes, he has gained weight, but what does that have to do with anything? On a narrative level, Favreau states that, ‘Yes, I have made some rote films, and yes some were less than spectacular, my calling card was in the 90’s, help me reinvent myself.’
The film doesn’t stand as anti-criticism (the film’s conclusion does away with that sentiment indisputably), but it does have some conflicted things to say about social media. It first condemns the 140-character opinion, an economic short-changing of verbosity that the entire world can read and reread and tell their friends to read, all of which claws at the skin of somebody somewhere. Later on, however, the positives of social media are spotlighted when the food truck becomes a success and the revival of Carl Caspar is powered by the disciples of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg. Will this film pronounce the revival of Jon Favreau?
No, mainly because Favreau’s career has not tanked nearly as much as he might think, but Chef will remind audiences of the filmmaker’s humble beginnings and of his amiable characteristics. As a performer, Favreau is at the top of his game. It’s been awhile since Favreau has taken a role of depth and of prominence, but here he’s rightfully the star of the show. He’s given himself a round character to work with, with tons of issues and complexities, gleaming moments, learning curves, and most importantly, catharsis. Chef Carl Caspar has a visible, albeit predictable arc and within the larger story Carl does exactly what any good lead character does – influence the characters around him.
Chef has a glowing cast, many of which the director has worked with before, while others possess strong character acting resumes, having worked with talents like Woody Allen and Tom McCarthy. Some of them appear throughout the film while others only appear in spurts and spades, or for even just a single scene. Bobby Cannavale, a diverse talent who has earned laughs in Blue Jasmine and Win Win but who also won an Emmy for Boardwalk Empire, pops up as an alcoholic Sous Chef, and John Leguizamo does his best work in years as another kitchen operator who later joins Carl on the truck. Dustin Hoffman, while only appearing in the first act, creates all of the necessary tension to get the story moving. His spar with Favreau is aggressive and unfounded, and we side with the chef well before he storms out of the kitchen. When you cast Dustin Hoffman, even in a small part like this, it’s almost a pre-ordained slam dunk performance, and it’s always a delight seeing the legend on screen. Amy Sedaris and the one-and-only Robert Downey Jr. appear for single scenes (the latter of which could have been entirely improvised and might have originally been intended for Vince Vaughn), while Sofia Vergara does lovely, understated work throughout. The Modern Family vet is wonderful when opposite Favreau, and their relationship, as unrealistic as it appears, comes through in the performances and the screenplay. Finally, Ms. Scarlett Johansson, who is having a banner year from Her, to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the remarkable Under the Skin, sports a silky, jet black hairdo and offers warmth and support on top of immediate eye candy. She doesn’t have much screen time, but with a little the actress still does a whole lot
The film’s anchor lies in the father-son dynamic between Favreau and newcomer Emjay Anthony, who plays Percy Caspar. As a divorced father with all the expected divorced father issues, Favreau’s Carl Caspar isn’t the easiest character to root for. As the film enters its back half, the extensive food porn-meets-angry little comedy beginning fades and a tender, heartwarming focus on growth and bonding emerges. At first, it seems like a weird digression into indulgence, like a fatherly segment on 30 Minute Meals, but despite the iffy transition, Favreau, Leguizamo, and Anthony become a fantastic food truck trio, riffing on one another and embarking on the bromantic lifestyle that Favreau once delivered to us in the fall of 1996. But that bromance, like I’ve said, is much different now. Favreau is a father of three in real life, and he reaches into those parental maturations to ground the relationship between Carl and Percy. The realization that Carl has when he discovers the fun he can have with the child that he loves is so gratifying, and during these touching moments the long-winded nature of Chef falls away and we remember why we enjoyed hearing Jon Favreau’s voice in the first place; a voice that I feel like we haven’t heard in a long time.
And yet, the co-star who gets the most to do besides Favreau is the food. Someone print the menu for this film and send it my way, stat! For a movie called Chef, it provides course after course that jump off the screen. Paired with Johannson and Vergara, the film is borderline pornographic in the culinary sense. Do not see this film hungry, you will regret everything. Chef has its savory moments and its bitter ones, but when it’s sweet, it’s about as sweet as a ‘written & directed by Jon Favreau’ movie can be. There’s still a lot of bite, and even when parts are overcooked, it remains appetizing and is ultimately a fully satisfying meal.
Review by Mike Murphy