After spending some time away from the indie film scene making some high profile Hollywood blockbusters (and some admitted box office duds, none of which were really his fault), actor and director Jon Favreau has come back with a gleefully reinvigorated mojo in the form of Chef, a winning, inspirational, and pitch perfect comedy that feels personal and universal at the same time. It’s a special kind of film that comes straight from the heart and guts of the person making it. Favreau puts himself out there literally and metaphorically to make not only the best film he has delivered since Iron Man and Elf, but also the best film of his career thus far as an actor, writer, and filmmaker. It’s great to have him back, but Chef feels more like the arrival of a fresh kind of talent that he hasn’t shown before.
Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a celebrity chef of sorts in California. He’s not the guy who probably has his own TV show or has published dozens of indistinguishable tomes of rehashed recipes. He’s a guy with a pedigree that lets his food do the talking. When the film begins, Carl finds himself in a creative, professional, and personal rut. He can feel the gap in the relationship he has to his son (Emjay Anthony) and his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) widening. He finds himself at the beck and call of his restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman), a man who wants to keep the menu safe and family friendly as possible. His sanitized culinary choices lead to a scathing, barbed, and personally insulting review from a hot shit food blogger (Oliver Platt) that pushes him over the deep end. After a public social media war goes viral, Carl loses his job and is forced into survival mode and damage control. His solution: go back to basics, fix up a food truck, go out on the road, and remind himself why he liked his job so passionately in the first place.
Taking out of the equation that Favreau is an admitted foodie (I really miss his show Dinner for Five), it’s hard not to take Chef as anything other than a point blank mission statement informed from years of projects people always wanted to categorize as “troubled” or “compromised.” Carl loves his job and he certainly never halfasses anything, but few people around him seem to share his passion. He just can’t do all the things he wishes he could do. He has the acclaim, but he’s powerless. His clashes with Hoffman’s bottom line minded owner and Platt’s sanctimonious critic come back to back, and they’re not only the lynchpins for the storyline to follow, but also electrifying bits of theatre where Favreau gets to make his frustrations seen to an outside world who might not understand just how much compromise can go into any creative endeavour when money and press is involved.
Favreau sets the story in a loose, but not necessarily episodic framework that allows Carl to become a fully rounded character over the course of the film. It’s a “journey” where every scene informs the central character, and he certainly gives himself a lot to play with while rounding out his cast with perfect sparring partners. He works perfectly against everyone in his path, and he’s working as a writer and a filmmaker to make sure that no two interactions and relationships are the same. Carl is the centre of the film’s universe, but everyone else around him is perfectly within his orbit, from Scarlett Johansson’s sympathetic and frazzled hostess to John Leguizamo’s idolizing sous chef. Carl isn’t an unlikeable guy, but Favreau plays him as a man with a deep regret, someone who has beaten himself up for far too long. He has hit the top, but while he hasn’t crashed the plateau he finds himself on is far more damaging to him mentally.
It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to watch. Here’s a man who has devoted his life to his craft and it’s impossible to not empathize. So when the film switches gears around the halfway point and the message about getting back to basics kicks in, Favreau has earned the right to move on from his obvious catharsis in the most pleasantly earned crowd pleasing manner possible. Populist entertainment and food are two things that should be adventurous and fun, so Favreau never talks down to the viewer and reassures them that things are going to be alright. Even while on the road with his son, Carl is still a neurotic mess that’s waiting for everything to come crashing down around him, fearful that he’ll be called a fraud again. He’s the stand-up comic that doesn’t see a room full of happy people, but instead fixates on the one guy sitting stonefaced with his arms crossed in the direct centre of his field of vision.
And who hasn’t felt that way, even on days that we know aren’t bad days? We can get thousands of happy compliments all the time, but the point of Chef’s humanist approach is that we shouldn’t let that handful of negativity thrown our way to get to us. It sounds strange as a critic to say this, but he’s absolutely right. It’s like a great sports movie, but with gorgeously photographed montages of food prep taking the place of weight training. You don’t have to have a wide palate or an intimate knowledge of Favreau’s career to work its magic, but it adds a bit more flavour to an already killer dish.