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Josh Reviews Chef

I’m a big fan of Jon Favreau the actor/performer, and I’ve also become a big fan of Jon Favreau the director.  It’s easy to forget, now that the Marvel movies have become such a successful juggernaut, just what a minor miracle the original Iron Man was.  That movie was far from a sure thing, and the reason it took off was mainly because of Mr. Favreau’s consummate skill at balancing the movie’s tone.  The story was exciting, with real dramatic and emotional stakes, while also being an unabashedly fun, funny romp that was a hugely enjoyable ride for the audience.  Few directors could have pulled that off, and I give all the credit in the word to Mr. Favreau for his accomplishment.  Every time you enjoy a new Marvel movie, you should thank Mr. Favreau for his work on the film that got the whole ball rolling.

But ever since 2008’s Iron Man, I can’t saw that I’ve been bowled over by Mr. Favreau’s work.  Iron Man 2 was underwhelming, and it has aged particularly poorly.  Cowboys & Aliens was a mess, an enormous waste of a great premise and a stellar cast.  But I’ve remained a fan of Mr. Favreau, interested in his work.  I want to enjoy his films.  And so I was intrigued when I heard about Chef, which Mr. Favreau wrote and directed, in addition to starring in.  This seemed like an appealing step back into the type of film Mr. Favreau used to be involved in, a film more like Swingers — a smaller-scale, more personal story with humor and with heart.

I am pleased to report that Chef is exactly that.  This isn’t a film that is going to set the world on fire, and it’s a film that, in some ways, feels just a little bit retro. But it’s endearing in the good-natured way the film wears its heart on its sleeve.  It’s got a great cast and a strong premise, and while there are no big surprises in the film, that’s fine by me as I quite enjoyed the small tale being told.

In the film, Mr. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a talented chef working at a successful California restaurant.  He’s a workaholic, and his family life has suffered.  He is also starting to feel stymied by the business-oriented owner of his restaurant, Riva (Dustin Hoffman).  Carl prepares an elaborate menu for the evening when a well-read food blogger (played by Oliver Platt) is visiting the restaurant, but Riva insists that he serve their regular menu of old favorites.  Not surprisingly, this earns Carl a lousy review.  Carl responds poorly, starting a twitter war with the blogger and eventually getting himself fired.  At loose ends, Carl’s ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) convinces him to buy a food truck and start serving his own food, whatever he wants to cook, from there.  Carl reluctantly agrees to the idea, and thus begins an adventure along with his fellow cook Martin (John Leguizamo) and his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony), turning their food truck into a Cubanos-serving sensation.

The arc of Chef is extremely predictable, but it works for me because of how fun the film is.  Mr. Favreau has written a fine script.  It’s not brilliant in terms of its word-play or structure, but it’s fun and it’s light and there are some clever moments with these endearing characters.  Mr. Favreau has assembled a terrific cast (clearly calling in some favors from his previous collaborators), and the cast elevates the material.  It’s been a while since I’ve really enjoyed John Leguizamo playing a nice, normal person, and he’s fun as Carl’s chef side-kick Martin.  Bobby Cannavale is also fun as another of Carl’s chef proteges, Tony.  (It’s a mark of how good-natured this film is that even after Tony sort of betrays Carl, neither the movie nor Carl seems to hold a grudge.)  Sofia Vergara doesn’t have much of a character as Inez, nor does Scarlett Johansson as Carl’s girlfriend Molly (and wow, talk about wish-fulfillment casting!), but they both bring a lot of life to their roles, making the most of their scenes.  Same goes for Dustin Hoffman as Riva.  We know exactly who this guy is immediately.  Oliver Platt is, of course, always fun.  (In my head I sort of imagined that he was reprising his role as prissy restauranteur Richard Antrem from Bored to Death.)  I loved the late-in-the-film appearance of Robert Downey Jr., even if he’s still sort of playing Tony Stark.  I was also quite taken with Emjay Anthony, the young man who plays Carl’s son in the film.  He’s sweet and likable without layering it on too thick.  Mr. Favreau himself is great in the leading role, gentle and honest and funny.  It’s nice to see Mr. Favreau in a leading role again, it’s been a while, and also nice to see him playing a relatively normal fellow again.

I mentioned before that the film feels a little bit retro, and maybe that’s because of the fairly simplistic arc to the story and the characters.  It’s also a film that feels just a little bit behind the times.  Carl’s downfall early in the movie hinges on his not understanding how twitter works, and the film makes quite a meal (pun  intended) out of the use of twitter as the story progresses.  Carl’s son’s use of twitter to promote their food truck is critical to their success, and we see some cute little animation on-screen any time a character uses twitter.  But, come on, doesn’t twitter already feel a little old hat here at the end of 2014?  Chef feels a few years late in making twitter so central to the story.  But it’s OK, I found the whole enterprise so endearing that I didn’t mind any of this.  Chef isn’t a film that is trying to be edgy or trend-setting, and it very much succeeds at what it is trying to do.

The film’s one mis-step is in the dramatic scene late in the film in which Carl unloads a tirade against the food-critic blogger, Ramsey Michel, played by Oliver Platt.  Carl’s angry speech takes issue with anyone who would dare to criticize someone who is struggling to make art, and it reads like a venting of Mr. Favreau’s rage towards every film critic who has given him a bad review over the years.  It’s so transparently a moment of Mr. Favreau’s personal experience being transposed onto the story of the film that it totally took me out of the movie.  Worse, Carl’s argument doesn’t really hold any water, because in the film it’s clear that Carl DIDN’T serve Ramsey a good meal!  Carl had a great meal planned but let himself be beaten down by his boss Riva into serving something boring and familiar.  So Ramsey’s review was honest and correct.  When Carl actually gets back to cooking food that he cares about and is invested in, Ramsey is supportive of him!  So Carl really has no reason to be upset with Ramsey or to question the legitimacy of his critical work, and so Mr. Favreau’s whole condemnation of the act of criticism falls apart.  It’s weird.

But other than that, the film was fun, and boy did it make me hungry.  There are some amazing scenes of absolutely delicious food being cooked and served throughout the film.  Wow.

Chef is not a revelation, but it’s a fun, entertaining small-scale piece of work by Mr. Favreau.  Now that he has his mojo back and has shown that he can write and direct a compelling story about real people, I’d love to see Mr. Favreau move back into something more ambitious for his next project.

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