Saturday, September 06, 2014
Work is the true subject of Jon Favreau’s Chef, a winning comedy of American mid-life reinvention. Favreau, who wrote and directed, plays a chef named Carl Casper whose Los Angeles restaurant is bracing for a visit from an online food critic (Oliver Platt). Carl has a special menu planned, but the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) wants him to stick to tried and true favorite dishes. After a negative review Carl can’t take it anymore, a blow-up in the restaurant makes him a viral video star, and he finds himself without either a job or any prospects. The heart of the movie is the divorced Carl’s brusque relationship with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), in which Carl confuses activity with attention. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more emasculating moment on film than the one where Carl’s ex (Sofia Vergara) asks him to accompany her on a trip to Miami so that he can be a “nanny” to his own son.
Jon Favreau can probably get almost any movie made that he wants to at this point, so while it’s tempting to cast Carl’s story (successful professional strikes out on new course in search of self-satisfaction) onto Favreau’s life I don’t think Chef is an allegory for Favreau not wanting to direct comic-book movies anymore. Carl lucks into a food truck, teams up with a pal (John Leguizamo), and winds up driving the truck back to Los Angeles with Percy along for the ride. Percy becomes a line cook and learns about the level of craftsmanship and effort his father expects, and the movie becomes a sort of love letter to fulfilling work. Jon Favreau doesn’t just want to make personal films, he wants to make good films well. Favreau’s scenes with Emjay Anthony have just the right level of awkwardness and desire for connection; Chef feels awfully right when it comes to depicting a divorced dad/child relationship. (Percy becomes the social media director for his Dad’s food truck; Chef gets Twitter right too.) The unusually starry supporting cast is as good as you expect: in addition to Hoffman and Leguizamo there’s Scarlett Johansson as a maitre d’, Bobby Cannavale as Carl’s lieutenant, and a funny cameo from Robert Downey, Jr. as a man once married to Carl’s ex. There may not be much that happens in Chef that one won’t expect, but the warmth and affection on display (helped by a salsa-heavy soundtrack) are welcome from Jon Favreau and signal a new chapter in his career. Chef doesn’t deserve to get lost as summer slips into fall; it’s an observant film full of both humanity and pleasure.