Originally published on July 1, 2014. Chef is now available on Amazon Prime’s streaming service.
Overview: A once celebrated chef hits a streak of (amusing) bad fortune that sends his career in an unexpected direction. Aldamissa Entertainment; 2014; Rated R; 114 Minutes.
In Control of His Kitchen: The first act of Chef displays a downward-spiraling Carl Casper, a culinary artist losing touch of his professional, creative, and personal life. As the film’s lead actor, Jon Favreau injects into Carl as much humor and likability as possible while convincingly selling the loose footing that leads the titular chef to fall flat on his face. In contrast, the film’s writer and director, also Jon Favreau, displays the constant assuredness and discipline that his character has lost. Every joke within this movie stops on the perfect punchline target, the musical cues are professionally synced, and the supporting cast is succinctly leashed and unleashed. Carl’s best friend and loyal partner Martin is played by John Leguizamo, his sous chef Tony is played by Bobby Cannavale, and his amicable and concerned ex-wife Inez is played by Sofia Vergara. None of these three actors have a historical résumé that indicates a talent for measured doses. In a lesser film, any of these characters/actors might have been stock, distractingly over-the-top, or even villainous. In Chef, they are the perfect measuring posts of compassion to frame this portraiture of an artist who still has room to grow. Along with new face Emjay Anthony (who plays Carl’s son Percy) and reliable force Scarlett Johannson (the supportive but challenging hostess at Carl’s restaurant), this supporting cast proves to be the perfect foundation for this character study.
An Artist is an Artist: Now that his IMDb credits include Iron Man (writer/director), Swingers (writer), and Cowboys and Aliens (director), it’s hard not to think of Favreau as a seasoned film veteran. By the same token, it’s difficult not to think of Chef on a level of film allegory. Chef illustrates the fine balance necessitated by all art: the balance between the money and the talent, the relationship between the creator and the critic, the funder and the funded, the bratty-ness of genius and the genius of self-discipline, innovation and traditionalism, passion for progress and awareness of the past. As a symbolically-extended study of an artist who has seen ups and downs, unexpected failures and successes, this film is as precise as a film can hope to be.
Overall: I imagine that there are countless reviews for this film which display a hurriedness to apply culinary puns. “Delicious!” “Scrumptious!” “The film that audiences were starving for!’ I expect all of these corny, shallow simplifications to decorate the home release trailer and the Blu-ray cover. And why not? I watched this movie the same weekend that Trans4mers: Age of Extinction was released, so the assignment of punny linguistic descriptors seems fair play, given that movie-going audiences have just been force-fed five straight courses of generic molten chocolate lava cake. My only concern is that these narrow-minded, customized descriptors might accidentally eliminate the credit for Chef’s strength as an inspiring personal artistic triumph, an astute and joyous measurement of American culture, and a hilarious snapshot of family devotion.