There are so many food puns I could make about how good Jon Favreau‘s Chef is, but I’ll do my best to avoid them…or at least limit them. Honestly, they don’t do this easygoing comedy justice, since it’s one of my three favorite films of the year so far. Yes, this little passion project of Favreau’s is something special, due in large part to his performance. This will remind many of you of his work in Swingers. I know it did for me. Along with Favreau, there’s a wonderful supporting cast on display, including solid parts for John Leguizamo and Sofía Vergara (to name just two), along with essentially cameos (but nice ones) for folks like Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. Everyone here is likable, just like the film on the whole. Chef is just so pleasurable to watch, it really is like a top notch fancy meal (I’ll try to limit the food references, I swear). Aside from the movie not being the deepest one on the planet, the only real complaint I have is that it made me hungry watching all of the delicious dishes being lovingly crafted. The flick just works in a big way. Chef is a winner, no doubt about that. It’s one of the best things to come out in 2014 to date.
Carl Casper (Favreau) is a formerly exciting young chef who currently is playing it safe at a new high end restaurant owned by Riva (Dustin Hoffman). He’s well paid, supported by a pair of excellent sous chefs in Martin (Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Canavale), and to top it all off, he’s apparently sometimes even dating the pretty hostess/sommelier Molly (Johansson). Life should be good. Carl is clearly bored though, something his ex wife Inez (Vergara) can clearly see whenever he picks up his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) for visits. Something is bubbling deep within him though, and when the food critic Ramsay Michel (Oliver Platt) gives him a savage review, he goes off the deep end. Learning how to use Twitter from Percy, he challenges the critic to come try a new menu, but when Riva wants him to play the hits as it were, Carl snaps and goes on a rant that quickly hits the web. Out of work, he takes Inez’s advice to start a food truck with the help of her more recent ex Marvin (Downey Jr.). With Martin and Percy along for the ride, Carl begins to make Cuban food in a truck, developing a following, but more importantly, getting excited about his life and calling again. Throw in some father son bonding, and it makes for a full meal (sorry, I did it again). The film never tries to get too serious, and is all the better for it.
This is one of Jon Favreau’s best performances here, up there with the work he did in Swingers years back. He’s incredibly believable in the role, using a lot of the goodwill you feel towards him in general to fuel this comeback story of sorts. It’s a smooth and effortless looking performance, but Favreau isn’t just coasting here. I really found it to be top notch work. He’s easily the best in the movie, though everyone more than does their part. John Leguizamo gets to be a fun sidekick of sorts as well as an encouraging presence for Carl, while the same goes for Bobby Canavale, just to a lesser degree, especially in one area. Sofía Vergara doesn’t have a particularly difficult role, but like Leguizamo, she has a few more scenes than the rest of the supporting cast does, so she can do a little bit more. Vergara’s character represents something interesting to Favreau’s, and Vergara does her part to bring that out from the script. Robert Downey Jr. is basically cameoing as himself and amusing us in the process, while Dustin Hoffman gets to be a pain in the ass, though far from a villain. The same turns out to be the case with Oliver Platt, though I’ll refrain from spoiling anything. Both are pretty good here though, trust me. If anything, the weaker links were young Emjay Anthony, who’s fine but nothing special, and Scarlett Johansson, not because she’s bad (in fact, she’s super charming and I wish there were more of her), but because her character is basically forgotten about at a certain point. The other smaller players here are played by the likes of Amy Sedaris (and a few others), but the big performance here is from Favreau.
You can argue that Iron Man is more impressive direction from Favreau and that Swingers is more impressive writing from him (and I’d agree with both), but I think Chef represents his most complete filmmaking outing to date. His direction is smooth and lovingly centered on the food in such a way that your mouth waters, while at the same time his writing is clever and moves things along at a great pace. He’s even able to work in an explanation about Twitter and depict its use onscreen in a way that works for the flick without ever becoming annoying. By and large, Favreau hits all the right notes behind the camera. With a slightly deeper script, I might have even gone four stars here. That being said, the comedy is never too broad, the drama never gets too heavy, and the screenplay gets its point across about parenting and the father son dynamic without ever having to preach. That’s another plus for Favreau.
I don’t think I’ve purely enjoyed a film this year quite as much as I did with Chef. One or two have moved me emotionally in more profound ways and one or two have captured my imagination in a deeper way, but no release so far in 2014 has made me as happy (or as hungry) as this one. Favreau and his fun loving cast all manage to have a grand old time on the screen, but the magic is that it translates from them to the audience. I think this might be too light to appeal to Academy voters, but regardless of its Oscar chances, right now it has a very strong shot to appear on my year end Top Ten list. It’s still kind of early, but it’s up there currently. Time will tell if it sticks around, but right now, it’s a movie that deserves to be seen. Chef is a delight, take it from me.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!