R, 114 min.
Director/Writer: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sophia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr., Amy Sedaris, Russell Peters, Jose C. Hernandez ‘Perico’
I’m not the only person I know that will pick this movie as one of my favorites of the year, although it seems to have been largely forgotten by critics, who were all about it when it was released theatrically. This is often the case with movies released earlier in the year. It’s interesting that the awards season doesn’t seem to have forgotten “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, but this one seems to have disappeared from everyone’s memory. That could be because it doesn’t distinguish itself with flashy cinematography, quirky characterization and dialogue, or “important” issues. However, it is the lack of most of those aspects that makes this movie so special.
“Chef” isn’t a movie with a statement to make. It is simply about a man searching to do what he loves the way he loves to do it and to do it with his son. To say that isn’t important is incorrect, but it is how many see it. There’s so much irony in that situation, because that is exactly why Jon Favreau’s chef must go on the journey he embarks on here, he must discover what is truly important in his life. It’s his kid and his freedom to cook food the way he wants to.
As the film opens, Carl Casper (Favreau) is a respected chef in Los Angeles, mostly because of a review he received years ago from an influential food blogger. In his current work situation, he’s the head chef of a conservative restaurant. He butts heads with his boss (Dustin Hoffman) about the menu. When Carl learns his critic will be visiting the restaurant, he eventually concedes to the owner’s wishes and sticks with the printed menu. The review is quite insulting and in a fit of an older person diving into the world of social media, Carl ends up challenging the critic on Twitter to come back for a special menu. The owner forbids it and fires Carl when he won’t concede again. This is the rock bottom Carl needed to discover what he really wants out of life.
His ex-wife has always felt Carl would never be happy working for someone else and suggests he get a food truck. His son always wants to spend time with his dad, as he lives with his mom. Carl always put his son off for work reasons. Now, he has the opportunity to explore both culinary freedom and include his son in his life by having the kid help him fix up the truck and work the grill.
Yes, this sounds like fairly standard stuff and it is, but is approached with tenderness and passion. This is obviously a passion project for Favreau. Not only does he give full attention to developing his characters, but he incorporates three other elements to this feature that sells it in the fullest fashion and transforms it from standard to exceptional. First, there’s the use of the social media platform of Twitter. Social media is really just starting to be explored by Hollywood for its influence. Here, Twitter is used as the catalyst of all the events of the film. Favreau wisely visualizes the use of this social media platform on screen by allowing the audience to see the Tweets as they’re created. When a Tweet is created a balloon shows up on screen next to the device that is being used to create it, and when the character clicks “send” it flies off into the world like a bird. This is a brilliant visualization of this act of posting our thoughts to the public at large.
Just as important is Favreau’s treatment of the process of cooking, which he approaches as a true art form. Whenever Carl is feeling overwhelmed, he cooks; and every time he cooks the movie stops everything to observe the entire process. This movie loves food as much as Carl does. All of these sequences are lovingly shot by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau as if they were the most important scenes of his photography career. This movie could do more to inspire people to cook than any show found on the Food Network.
Finally, each of these cooking montages is punctuated by incredible music, most of it Cuban. It is the food of Cuba that provides Carl with his highest joy of cooking; the music is picked to match it. There are also several music sequences, including a classic Cuban jazz ensemble, a crooning skeleton puppet, and a live blues performance at an impromptu sales stop in Austin, Texas. It’s obvious that Favreau finds a great deal of power and passion in music. His selection raises the emotional level of the picture and adds to it lust for life.