It’s quite understandable that reviewers have highlighted the perceived autobiographical elements of Jon Favreau’s Chef, the story of a successful man in his chosen field brought low by the critics. After rosy responses to Zathura , Elf and Iron Man, Favreau’s lustre was tarnished by back-to-back underwhelmers Iron Man II and Cowboys and Aliens. Following the line of thought that his Chef character in is commentary and payback for this doesn’t really follow, however, not unless Favreau wants us to believe those who brought him low are a sobering force of good. Whatever his intentions, the retreat into a small personal movie has done Favs the world of good; it’s his best picture since he made Marvel Studios what it is by casting Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark.
Favreau wrote, starred and directed, so he’s consciously setting his dish up to be wolfed down or regurgitated across the sidewalk. He plays Carl Casper, a Miami-born chef at a Riva’s (Dustin Hoffman) L.A. restaurant. When renowned critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt, vying with Favs for girth cred) slates Carl’s menu (“His dramatic weight gain can only be explained by the fact that he must be eating al the food sent back to the kitchen”), reserving particular venom for his lava cake, Carl takes to Twitter (“You wouldn’t know a good meal if it sat on your face”) and challenges Carl to a second round.
Riva refuses to let Carl decide the menu, and the chef walks out. This leads to a broadcast meltdown as Carl confronts Ramsey (“It hurts”). Now without a job, Carl is persuaded by his ex-wife to buy a food truck. Aided and abetted by the son he has neglected and his devoted sous chef, Carl takes a road trip from Miami back to L.A. selling the Cuban cuisine he loves as he goes.
This is a fantasyland of a guy who has a whole lot anyway getting even more when he subtly course redirects. All he needs is a bit of cajoling from a wise ex who knows anyway that he won’t be happy until he’s his own boss (and comes back to her with his tail between his legs). When Carl takes delivery the dilapidated truck there’s a mere modicum of spit and polish before it’s miraculously spick and span and spruced and painted.
There’s very little conflict here; I was waiting for the son to get rushed to ER after burning himself on a hotplate, and Carl getting blamed by the ex, but it never happened. Favreau also really takes his time (a trim ninety minutes would probably have been the ideal). The subplot with his neglected son is on the clumsy side (that’s not Emjay Anthony’d fault), alternatively having Casper act the jerk or engage in cloying reconnection.
If the unlikelihood of Casper being surrounded by a bevy of beauties looks like wish fulfilment on an alarming scale, Favs at least presents it like he’s in on the joke. The succession of digs about Carl’s dramatic weight gain makes it marginally more feasible he might once have attracted Sofia Vergara, and it’s quite clear the only way to hostess Scarlett Johansson’s heart is through her stomach. Favreau shoots Molly’s anticipation of Casper’s dish like a response foreplay, followed by her raptures as she digs in. Generally, Favreau does a fine job making the food look delicious. One might make cracks about how obvious it is that he likes his chow, but it really does come across on screen.
Much has been commented, not so glowingly, of Chef being built on Twitter, but it works pretty well, as device for spinning the plot and building up Favreau’s business. It even extends to building Carl’s relationship with his tech-savvy son.
As for Favs calling favours from his pals, mostly this pays off. ScarJo is hardly in it really, and the female characters suffer slightly as unimpeachable forces who guide Carl back to his calling, but she’s far more alive and present here than in any number of Black Widow outings. Vergara Inez is too good to be true, but she’s so likable the character gets a free pass. Amy Sedaris is very funny as the publicist who wants to get Carl on Hell’s Kitchen.
Then there’s John Leguizamo as faithful Martin. I don’t know if he’s got new management, but the last couple of times I’ve seen him on screen Leguizamo’s been playing likeable sorts. It comes as a bit of a shock after all those years of him embodying weasels. He’s a good fun, as is Bobby Carnavale. Dustin Hoffman’s great too (he’s really not looking like he’s nodding towards eighty), delivering one of his increasingly finely chosen cameos.
Downey Jr, as another of Inez’ ex-husbands, is okay, but he’s just showing up, coasting on the charisma (Will Smith did similarly recently, to more laughable effect, in Winter’s Tale). Platt’s always dependable, but even he struggles with the syrupy pixie dust of the final scenes (not only does Ramsey make up with Carl, but he puts his own money into a joint business venture!)
Interpreting the self-styled Hollywood metaphor, Hoffman becomes the disinterested studio boss, content with the bottom line and blanching at any prospect of “artsy shit”. Of course, Favreau has never made artsy shit and, as marginally indie as Chef is, there’s not really much danger of it being seen that way. But Carl’s excursion into a food van is Favs making this movie, basically. The critic finances his next venture is… what, crowdsourcing? The analogy drops out a bit there.
It also drops out in terms of the complaints over being criticised (we even get it rehearsed again at the end; “It hurts people like me”). It’s implicit that if Ramsey hadn’t stuck the boot in then Carl wouldn’t have regrouped and come out a better person. Perhaps Favs is just too nice a guy not to see all sides. Certainly, this doesn’t leave a bad taste in the way Shyamalan’s bite back in Lady in the Water does; there’s a sense of humour mixed with the grandstanding and saccharine denouement.
Whatever Chef’s faults, you can tell Favs feels it, connects with it, which helps hugely. There’s no attack of indigestion here, just a mild bloaty feeling. And now, having got this out of his system, Favreau has forsaken the indie food truck and returned to the big studio eatery, tempting fate with one of the duelling Jungle Books. He may be putting his heart and soul into the picture, but is it personal, and meaningful? Will Shere Khan hurt people like him?
Yes, the top-lining poster is shockingly real.