In recent years, my beloved home city of Portland has become world-famous for our food carts. From the individual carts on every street corner to “pods” of food carts taking up entire parking lots, there is no excuse for being unable to find a place to eat in Portland. They’ve become a treasured part of the city culture, in large part because of how independent they are by nature. Every single cart is unique, offering exotic foods and inventive recipes that couldn’t be found anywhere else. There’s also a satisfying kind of informality (and admittedly, a very long wait time) in knowing that your food is being made right there without a barrier between you, the chef, and the kitchen.
Alas, the golden age of food carts in PDX is quickly coming to an end, as the city has been closing down food cart pods to make room for apartment complexes. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the city has a tough time dealing with a surge in population, and I know that the difference in regulations between restaurants and food carts has been notoriously grey for a long time. Still, it feels like something precious is being lost.
So here’s Chef, a movie in which writer/director Jon Favreau stars as a disgruntled chef who expresses his art of cooking by opening a food cart. Unfortunately, it takes him half the movie to get to that point.
I’m not gonna lie, the film takes a long time getting up to speed. I’m sorry to say that Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) starts out as a rather dull protagonist, with very little in the way of consequential dialogue or interaction with the other characters. I couldn’t really figure out anything about Carl as a person, except that he was very self-unaware about how neurotic he is. And “neurotic” isn’t something that Favreau can play very well.
However, I have a hard time holding this against the movie because these faults are there by design. The character is two-dimensional (at first, anyway) because he is a chef to his heart and core. Cooking is all he is, it’s all he does, and it’s all he knows. Furthermore, Carl is dull because he spends every waking moment on a job that’s making him miserable. Whether it’s the restaurant owner who rejects Carl’s ideas to stay with the safe and profitable (Riva, played by Dustin Hoffman), the food critic who lambastes Carl from behind a keyboard (Ramsey Michel, played by Oliver Platt), or all the customers who only come to the restaurant because of a godawful review that went viral, Carl is putting his heart and soul into working for people who return his passion with disrespect. Carl sacrificed his marriage, he’s neglecting his son, and he’s driving his staff to the breaking point, and for what?
So, after Carl leaves his job in disgrace, he’s persuaded to run his own business and cook his own menu out of a food truck. And this is where the movie really comes alive in so many ways.
First of all, a huge chunk of the movie focuses on Carl patching things up with his son (Percy, played by Emjay Anthony). It’s your basic plot about a workaholic father who can’t find time for his kid, then the two of them gradually bond as they spend the running time together, and so on. On the surface, it’s the same plot we’ve already seen so many times. But this film makes it work.
A lot of that comes down to young Emjay Anthony. He really makes it clear that Percy is hurting, but he’s so good at covering up the constant disappointment with patience and white lies (“I didn’t even notice how late you were, it’s okay.”) because that’s the only way of coping that he knows. Even so, it’s Favreau who deserves the bulk of the credit for making this storyline work. As an actor, a writer, and a director, he makes it abundantly clear that this storyline comes from a place of sincere passion. Carl genuinely wants what’s best for Percy, even if it means taking himself out of the picture for a little while. He doesn’t know how to be a husband or a father, he only knows how to be a cook. And when Carl finally gets a chance to share that passion with his son, the resulting interplay between them is simply wonderful.
Speaking of passion, a lot of this film is comprised of some crystal-clear metaphors for the film industry. When Carl (fighting to try something new and brilliant) is arguing with Riva (the guy who pays for everything and wants to stick with the safe, familiar, profitable products), it’s really hard not to draw comparisons with filmmaker-studio relations. When Carl is lashing out at Ramsey Michel, he’s obviously saying everything that filmmakers wish they could say to their own critics and haters (to address the elephant in the room, yes, Ratatouille did something similar). And later, Carl takes his food truck on a road tour, using social media to drum up customers and tell the world where he’s going to be, just like many independent filmmakers do nowadays.
On the one hand, a lot of this stuff can be rather preachy and on-the-nose. On the other hand, this is Jon Favreau. He’s been working as an actor/writer/director/producer multihyphenate since the ’90s, working on everything from indie films to mammoth blockbusters. If Favreau wants to talk about filmmaking and business in Hollywood, then I for one am willing to listen.
(Side note: There are a couple of times when Carl and Percy watch movies together, and we get a few glimpses of the big-budget spectaculars Percy seems to like. These moments are surprisingly funny, especially since they look like good-natured ribbing at Favreau’s friends in Marvel.)
Getting back to the concept of social networking, I’m sorry to say that this film relies on a lot of “old people can’t use social networking” jokes. Carl’s inability to use Twitter is both a linchpin of the plot and a sizeable chunk of the film’s humor. Normally, I’d begrudge a film for using jokes that went stale something like a decade ago. But since it fits with Carl’s complete lack of knowledge about anything that doesn’t pertain to food, I’ll let it slide. Also, the comedy is otherwise very witty (though mostly concentrated in the second half), so there’s that.
Moving on to the rest of the cast, I must say that Sofia Vergara as a surprising amount of chemistry with Favreau in the role of Carl’s ex-wife (on good terms). John Leguizamo plays Carl’s sous chef, and he plays a role with incredible humor and charm. Seriously, I didn’t think there would ever be a time when Leguizamo wasn’t an unwelcome annoyance, and yet here we are! Bobby Canavale gets some good laughs as another member of Carl’s staff, Dustin Hoffman brings enough presence to elevate an otherwise thankless role, and Scarlett Johansson is suitably charming for her limited screen time. And speaking of Iron Man alumni, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the cameo appearance by Robert Downey Jr. himself. It’s a brief yet crucial role, so eccentric and goofball that Favreau had to have written it with RDJ in mind.
Then we have the score. The second half of the film takes place in varying locations between Miami and Venice Beach. As such, the film takes on a Latin sort of flavor that infuses the film with fresh and irresistible energy. There were so many times in the second and third acts when the music made me want to get up and dance.
Last but not least, the camerawork is superlative. I can personally guarantee that from start to finish, the visuals in this film will make your stomach growl, your mouth water, and your eyes larger than dinner plates. This was the primary reason why I was willing to stay with the film through its first half: Because this movie showed such passion for cooking and such beauty in food that I completely understood where Carl’s obsessive mania was coming from. For God’s sake, there’s a scene in this movie that makes a goddamn grilled cheese sandwich look like the apex of culinary mastery. Dead serious.
Chef takes a while to get going, but it’s a delightful feel-good movie when it starts firing on all cylinders. It’s funny, it’s gorgeous, it’s energetic, and even its lesser parts were clearly borne of genuine passion. Sure, the film can occasionally get preachy on the subjects of creating and appreciating art, but even its preachiest moments are delivered with intelligence and heart. Plus, there’s little arguing that Favreau has earned a bit of time on that particular soapbox.
Though it wouldn’t hurt to wait for a rental, this is absolutely a movie worth watching. Just be sure to have some food nearby when you do.