Silver Screen: Chef ****
It seemed an odd choice when Marvel Studios, back in the day before every third movie in theaters tied in to The Avengers, chose Jon Favreau to helm their fledgling superhero franchise Iron Man. Favreau was best known for writing and starring in the 1990s indie comedy hit Swingers. His résumé as a director included the underwhelming Swingers followup Made and two kiddie comedies, the charming Will Ferrell Christmas movie Elf and the mostly forgotten Zathura.
Iron Man turned into a megahit, thanks in part to Favreau’s instincts for character-driven comedy and a surprising facility with big action sequences. He continued in this blockbuster vein with Cowboys and Aliens and an Iron Man sequel before Marvel unceremoniously dumped him from the lucrative franchise he helped create.
You needn’t know much about Hollywood gossip to see that Favreau’s latest film, Chef, has strong biographical parallels. The writer/director stars as Carl Casper, a chef whose love of cooking is literally written all over his body. He sports prodigious ink, including a tattoo of a knife running up one forearm and “El Jefe” written across his knuckles. He’s been toiling for a decade at a restaurant he helped create that’s owned by someone else (Dustin Hoffman, one of the movie’s many big-name actors in bit parts). The menu has gotten stale, at least according to a scathing review written by a smarmy food critic (Oliver Platt) that works Carl into a lather. Carl starts a Twitter beef with the food critic and insists on swapping out the restaurant’s standard menu for more adventurous courses. For his trouble he’s summarily fired.
Now Carl is a workaholic adrift. The only cooking he can do is make meals for his semi-estranged son Percy (Emjay Anthony), a kid eager to have a real relationship with a father who’s never had time for one. Carl’s implausibly understanding ex-wife (Sofía Vergara) hooks him up with a financier (Robert Downey Jr. in a brief but funny scene) who wants to back him in a new food-truck venture. To get the truck from Miami back to Los Angeles, Carl, his faithful sous chef (John Leguizamo), and Percy must take a cross-country road trip, stopping at various foodie hubs along the way to debut their signature brand of Cuban-influenced street food.
And, oh, the food! Favreau studied with real-life chef Roy Choi to learn his way around a knife and a saucepan, and the preparation paid off. He looks absolutely at ease in the kitchen, whether he’s making barbecue brisket sliders, rapidly dicing vegetables and mincing herbs for a tangy marinade, or whipping up a steaming bowl of noodles for his sometimes girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson, another Iron Man veteran popping in a for a few scenes). All the food is beautifully lit and lovingly photographed, so much so that you might as well plan on grabbing a meal immediately after the movie. You’re going to want one, and it had better be good.
Chef is a return to form about a return to form. For Favreau, the chef-to-moviemaker metaphor operates at a direct one-to-one ratio. Anything he says about cooking can be readily applied to writing and moviemaking as well. But rather than a blunt and too-literal connection, the comparison is broadened so that the insights apply to creation and inspiration of any kind. Chef is about the joy of working in an artform for the pure pleasure of craftsmanship.
The obvious critique of Chef is that Favreau, both as a director and in character as Carl, makes a plea for a return to artistic integrity, then cranks out the kind of feel-good family movie you might expect to see from a mainstream, major-studio production. I’d be willing to bet some of Favreau’s Iron Man money that more than a few hacky film critics have used the term “comfort food” dismissively to describe the final product.
But to grouse about Chef’s conventional arc or its so-gentle-it’s-barely-there brand of conflict is to miss the point entirely. Favreau’s rejection both of and by the Hollywood-studio system doesn’t mean he’s eager to set a course for avant-garde experimentalism, and to expect as much is to completely misinterpret Chef’s clear mission statement. Yes, when Carl first clashes with the restaurant owner, he wants to cook more adventurous fare like sweetbreads and beef cheeks rather than the restaurant’s tried-and-true signature dishes. Yet after he sets out on his own, he realizes that what he’s truly interested in serving is a dynamite version of the traditional Cuban and southern food— peasant food like sandwiches, barbecue, and beans and rice— artfully executed. Chef isn’t a call to arms for boundary breaking. Favreau makes no claim to subvert convention. Chef is all about— and succeeds because of— the authenticity of its expression. These are the issues on Favreau’s mind, and he wants to share them with you, and in the process make you smile.
Late in the movie Carl explains to his son why they can’t serve a slightly burned sandwich to a customer. He must only sell the best version of his product he possibly can make, because there’s an implicit pact between the cook and the diner. “I get to touch people’s lives,” Favreau says, marveling at the statement as he hears himself speak it. He knows that’s the real game. If you want hoity-toity cinematic cuisine intended to flatter the egos of the creator and consumer alike, go elsewhere. They’re serving street food here, and it’s fantastic.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.