Anyone who's followed writer/director/actor Jon Favreau's career closely will immediately recognize that his low-budget feature Chef is largely a metaphor for his experiences making big-budget movies. The film cleverly substitutes “chef” for “director,” “restaurant owner” for “studio head,” “food critic” for “film critic” and so on. It's not an angry rant, but an honest (and often self-deprecating) look at the creative stagnation that often occurs when a talented artist becomes successful. However, the nifty trick Favreau pulls off is that he never lets the metaphor swallow the film whole: it's such a satisfying food movie that it works perfectly well without all of the Iron Man 2-inspired subtext.
In addition to writing and directing the film, Favreau stars as Chef Carl Casper, who's just launched a new restaurant. Carl made his name with adventurous dishes and culiniary experimentation, but his new gig involves applying his professional touch to safe, conventional dishes. When Carl learns that esteemed food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt, Bored to Death) will be reviewing his restaurant, he plans to shake the menu up and make the sort of distinctive food that won him acclaim years earlier. Unfortunately, restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man) is concerned that Carl's new recipes could drive away customers. Riva orders Carl to stick to the management-approved script... er, menu... or else. Carl reluctantly complies, and sure enough, Ramsey Michel's review is scathing.
One can't help but wonder if most of Riva's lines are paraphrased versions of things Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige once said to Favreau. Riva knows that Carl is talented, but there's little room for artistic ambition when the stakes are this high. “Look, if you bought Stones tickets and they didn't play 'Satisfaction,' how would you feel? Would you be happy?” Riva asks. Carl sees his point, but he also imagines that the Stones probably get tired of playing "Satisfaction" after a while. Eventually, our culinary hero strikes out on his own and begins operating a food truck, rediscovering the joy of his profession in the process.
The thing I love most about Chef is that it's so loose, relaxed and unhurried. There are no sequels to set up, no major dramatic developments that need tending to and no action sequences to bother with. Favreau delivers some of the best cooking sequences I've seen since Stanley Tucci's Big Night, delivering one scene after another that will leave you salivating (particularly that pasta dish Carl makes early in the film). Favreau litters the soundtrack with similarly flavorful music – a little salsa here, a little New Orleans funk there. The story probably could have been told in 90 minutes, but then we'd miss out on so many of the film's little pleasures. Favreau lets his atmospheric moments breathe, and the 116-minute running time flies by as a result.
Alternately, Favreau minimizes the amount of unnecessary drama on offer. Early on, Favreau sets up a number of routine conflicts and scenarios: Carl has a grudge against Ramsey Michael, Carl doesn't spend enough time with his son Percy (the talented young Emjay Anthony, Insurgent), Carl is slowly re-connecting with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara, Modern Family), etc. Refreshingly, Favreau breezes over most of the tired dramatic scenes we're expecting to see, instead letting these plot strands unfold quietly and organically. When Carl tells Percy that he's too busy to hang out with him, Percy doesn't angrily shout at his father – he simply accepts that his dad is too busy for him, which only deepens Carl's guilt.
Movies tend to be notoriously bad at depicting the artist/critic relationship, as many filmmakers succumb to the urge to depict critics as hate-filled loners who find pleasure in causing others pain. Chef offers a far more nuanced and honest take, as Platt's character serves up criticism that is well-intentioned (yet needlessly snarky) and helpful (yet also hurtful). Carl flies into a rage when he reads Ramsey's nasty review, but deep down, he knows that Ramsey is right. Ultimately, the review angers Carl because it forces him to confront the fact that he's sold out. The final scene between these two characters is one of the film's loveliest moments.
Any time an actor casts himself in a lead role, he risks having his film labeled, “a vanity project.” Favreau escapes that trap by turning in one of his best, most committed performances – despite all of the barely-disguised references to Favreau's professional life, Carl is genuine and distinctive enough to avoid turning into a mere symbol. The supporting cast is stacked with A-list talent, as Favreau was able to call in a few favors and convince his Hollywood pals to join his scrappy little indie movie. Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers) has a small but appealing role as one of Favreau's pals, Robert Downey, Jr. (Sherlock Holmes) turns up in a delightfully smarmy scene and Dustin Hoffman nails his handful of scenes as the overbearing restaurant owner. It's nice to see Sofia Vergara getting to play a down-to-earth character instead of the broad comic role she's usually given, and Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire) brings scruffy charm to a character who might have been obnoxious. The real star of the supporting cast is John Leguizamo (Ice Age), whose playful, easy chemistry with Favreau proves one of the film's consistent delights.
I suppose you could argue that Chef is a slight film, but its slightness is part of what makes it such a thoroughly appealing change of pace for Favreau. It's a movie that plays to every single one of his strengths, and quite possibly the best film of his career. Let's hope that it isn't long before he cooks up something like this again.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Year: 2014