Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara
Genre: Comedy/ Drama
Carl Casper (Favreau) is a professional chef whose creative flair for cooking is being repressed by his boss (Dustin Hoffman) who insists on keeping to the same menu while he equally struggles to connect with his estranged son (Emjay Anthony). After Casper publicly loses it when confronting a food critic (Oliver Platt) he finds himself with no job and unable to keep the promise he made to his son of taking him away during the school holidays. However, after acquiring a food truck which he and former colleague Martin (Leguizamo) take on tour, Casper gets the chance to reignite his flair for cooking and after his son decides to come along, finally form a close bond with his son.
After either directing or starring in some big box office successes every actor or director (or both) can then often use this success for a bit of what could be described as ‘cinematic me-time’ and to go off and make a film for themselves, while calling in a few favours from famous friends they have made along the way, usually referred to as a ‘passion project’. Of course another phrase could be ‘vanity project’. This is something many directors do with the whole ‘one for them, one for me’ notion, i.e. direct a film for a studio and use the money to fund a passion project. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows some very talented people to utilise their talents, skills and imagination to create some exceptional films. It can also create some truly smug, self indulgent and therefore alienating films that when watching you almost feel like you a gate crashing someone’s very private party.
Chef is Jon Favreau’s own bit of cinematic me-time, and no one would argue that he deserves it. He has written, directed and produced this film and is quoted as saying that he wanted to go “back to basics” and make a low budget film, and apparently there are elements of the story that reflect his own life. Though such things can sound ominous, Chef is without a doubt self indulgent, but is served up with enough good intentions and a decent script to sit quite nicely as a main course in the middle of the two aforementioned extremes.
The main course of the narrative has highly predictable character arcs which are often quite contrived and I am sure there are very few of us men that if we were making a film that would not want to cast Sofía Vergara as an ex wife and Scarlett Johansson as some kind of on-off lover of our character. Chef is certainly a film were Favreau is not afraid to persuade many big names to join in him the kitchen and turn up essentially as side dishes, and though the cameos add watch-ability and a little flavour, when these big names turn up as you may find yourself saying “oh look, it’s Robert Downey Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt etc., they do not make too much difference overall and if anything are a distraction from the main course. Though they thankfully do not leave the viewer feeling bloated.
Favreau is (in my mind at least) first and foremost a comedy actor, and his surprisingly sweary script often adds a sharp twang to the dish that only serves to enhance the flavour. Chef is very much a comedy-drama and so the humour is a little more of a subtle seasoning than some of the other 15 rated comedies that have come out this year, and that is only a good thing. It serves up plenty of funny moments and also plenty of the usual sentimental moments. Though the latter are often a little clichéd and predictable, they are prepared and served with the best of intentions. The basic plot to Chef could easily be an Adam Sandler film, but thankfully never goes anywhere near the nasty and cynical nature of Sandler’s recent output that leave a real bitter taste in the mouth and so emerges as a very enjoyable, if slightly forgettable film.
One of the main reasons why Chef is such an enjoyable narrative to digest is that the cast all on top form. Though that can sometimes add a bad taste (that smug, self indulgent element again) in the case of Chef it only brings out the flavour of the viewing experience. The famous cameos are just side dishes, it is the actors playing the main characters that are without doubt the main course and they are all on great form. Favreau is extremely likeable and still knows not to overcook the comic timing, and Emjay Anthony as also highly likable as Carl’s son. However the most appetising dish that certainly brings a lot more flavour is John Leguizamo; sharing great chemistry with both Favreau and Anthony, his energetic performance heats up every scene he is in.
One of the other key ingredients of this narrative dish is Twitter. Though at times it feels like a giant advert for the website and adding perhaps the occasional contrivance, it makes Chef very much a film of its time, but means that perhaps it may have a sell by date and go off after a few years.
For his passion project Jon Favreau serves up a fair amount of self indulgence, contrivances and clichés, but it is a dish cooked up with enough perfectly appetising good intentions to make sure all courses are perfectly enjoyable and satisfying for a one time serving.