Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Jon Favreau
Cinematographer: Kramer Morgenthau
by Jon Cvack
I had heard great things about Chef, but the preview really made me take my time getting there. It’s an example of where I’m sure Favreau had the control to limit what was revealed in the marketing and unfortunately, with a filmmaker who’s had some hits and misses, I kept thinking the whole movie was a comedy about a food truck, focused more on humor than character. It was only after I started The Way (2010) and immediately turned it off out of absolute awe that it was as corny as it was, as though a 90s made-for-tv movie, that I figured I’d check out the first 45 minutes of Chef and head to bed, and ended up watching the whole thing in a single sitting, staying up until 2am with no concern for work the next day.
Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper as an LA chef that’s heading up some swanky restaurant, owned by Dustin Hoffman, who plays Riva, in possibly one of his best roles since Meet the Fockers. There’s a big food blogger, Ramsey Michael (Oliver Platt), who’s coming to visit and they need to ensure that everything’s perfect. Although Carl is known for his eccentric and creative dishes, he’s beseeched by Riva to keep the menu traditional and simple. It’s Carl’s decision, but he’s been warned. Carl’s co-workers, Molly (Scarlett Johansson), Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and Martin (John Leguizamo) urge him to take the risk and do what he wants. Carl acquiesces to Riva and delivers the normal menu to a devastating review.
It goes without saying that this movie is phenomenally well cast. Aside from the names is how real each character felt - Favreau was able to make Johansson feel accessible, somehow reining in her mega stardom; Martin is one the great best friends in a movie, probably not seen since Superbad; Oliver Platt perfectly captures the essence of a smug food critic; and Favreau was willing to pack on some pounds and return to his roots of insecurity, playing a character that seemed an extension of Mike Peters who might have dropped from acting and pursued the culinary arts (and I don’t mean the same character, but as though we were revisiting Mike twenty years later and witnessing how adulthood had taken its effect).
I wasn’t sold on Sofia Vergara, who while I understand was required for the whole Cuban turn the film takes, could have been played by a much more realistic actress. She is so overwhelmingly gorgeous that you constantly wonder how Favreau could have possibly gotten together with her in the first place and how he could have destroyed it later on, with the latter point being the most glaring weakness. She must have done something absolutely terrible to have had him leave her, though given their healthy friendship, I can’t imagine what this could have been been - with the exception of maybe Carl pursuing cooking so diligently that he started ignoring her, in which case I kind of don’t like him since 1) he had Sofia Vergara and 2) she was extravagantly wealthy, so how bad could his life really have been (in a First World problem kind-of-way)? I could keep going with how he fell into a deep existential crisis and/or how she treated him poorly, but the point is that none of this was suggested or explored, and for a film that was so well casted it seemed like this was a gratuitous choice to appease some investor or something, or through a marketing team knowing how obsessed some of the fans would be who might be attracted to the film by her name alone.
The film does one of the best jobs of using social media of any show or movie I’ve seen, up there with House of Cards use of texting messaging as when the nasty review comes out, Carl has his kid set up a Twitter account, and not knowing that messages go out into the world rather than directly to the user, he castigates Ramsey Michael and it goes viral. The exchange continues and results in Carl inviting Ramsey over for the meal he actually wanted to cook. However, moments before the show begins, with all of the ingredients purchased and recipes prepped, Riva shuts down the idea. Carl had already screwed them over once. Riva believes Carl probably had a bad night, forcing him to cook the same conservative meal or walk.
He walks and heads home to cook the meal he wanted to, starts exploring Twitter, fuming with ire, and then marches back into the restaurant and confronts Ramsey, which of course gets recorded and uploaded and goes even more viral than his initial mistake. The whole series of events is done so perfectly, with Favreau posting and exploring realistic ways of using social media that avoid the cheap jokes often associated with trying to integrate the technologies.
The event leads Carl to purchase a food truck in Florida, where he'll sell Cubano sandwiches, and drive the truck back to Los Angeles, making stops along the way. All the while, his kid Percy (Emjay Anthony) captures the entire journey on Instagram, from the food truck’s instauration through touring New Orleans, subsequently creating a massive following, prepping crowds who anticipate their arrival at each city. There’s a beautiful moment when Carl checks all the photos that really sums up how powerful social media can be, as it both helped sell their business and was able to capture a son’s love for his father.
The movie reminds of those long past feel-good mid-budgeted 90s films - something that wasn’t about politics or concerned with taking itself too seriously. You could see how much Favreau had consumed and learned to prepare for this movie. In fact, I just saw him post a photo on Reddit of a fresh made Cubano sandwich, that he was taught and studied in preparation for the film.
We discover that Carl cooks as a way to express himself. It’s his art, no different than a writer, musician, or painter. When we see stories of people who simply love what they do, performed by someone who had an extravagant amount of respect to learn the discipline, you can’t help but be enraptured. Seeing Favreau cook makes your mouth water and you also want to learn how to do what he does; the way another classic mid-range film That Thing You Do ('96) made thousands want to pick up percussion. Still, I try to think of a movie that I could compare it to, and it’s difficult. I know I’ve felt a similar way watching other films, I just can’t think of where they’d fit in relation. Chef is an absolutely incredible movie. The rare story that I could easily watch again and again.
BELOW: Making the Cubanos (don't watch while hungry)
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