Sunday, July 6, 2014

'Chef' review

Chef is a film that is not trying to be subtle at all. The movie is an obvious metaphor for director Jon Favreau's career and the comparisons are pretty apparent throughout. Favreau wrote Swingers in 1996 and was hailed as a brilliant new voice in cinema. After that, Favreau ended up producing a string of studio blockbusters including Elf and two installments in the Iron Man franchise that jump-started the Marvel movie machine. Some of those movies were good, but towards the end of Favreau's run with big-budget popcorn fare, you could tell that he was running on empty. Iron Man 2 was a messy, overstuffed film that existed for the sole purpose of setting up more Marvel movies and Cowboys and Aliens was just dull and flat. Favreau returns to his independent roots with Chef, a film that tracks Chef Carl Casper (Favreau), who goes from being controlled by a restaurant owner to operating his own food truck, where he can cook the food that he wants.  Just as the food truck signals a fresh new start for Casper, Chef is a fresh new start for Favreau. Chef is his food truck and it's flavorful and a pleasure to watch.

Carl Casper was hailed as a genius by food bloggers when he burst on the scene. But ten years later, he's controlled by a restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) and is still cooking the same food that made him famous. He's also divorced from his wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and completely disconnected from his son Percy (Emjay Anthony). After a huge outburst directed at food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), Casper quits his job at the restaurant and starts up a food truck. His friend and colleague Martin (John Leguizamo) helps him start up the truck and the El Jefe food truck is off and running. The truck also gives Casper a chance to reconnect with his son and regain his passion for cooking.

Chef has some problems, but authenticity is not of them. This is a movie that feels organic from beginning to end. Despite a few familiar narrative tropes, you really get the feel that Favreau just went and made this movie on the fly. Even the inevitable, predictable ending is handled in a very fresh and natural manner. Favreau did a really solid job with this film, but this was definitely a slow-burn for me. I didn't necessarily get into it immediately. For the first half hour, it felt like a bit of a middling indie movie. By the time the food truck comes around, this movie finds its voice and its heart. This is really a heartfelt and genuine film and that's what I appreciated about it.

The script needs to warm up for a while before it really gets to the good stuff, but I feel like that may have been done on purpose. There's a general discomfort that I felt during the first forty minutes of this movie. The editing just didn't seem fluent and the scenes just felt kind of sad at times. However, Casper is uncomfortable with what he's doing and his life is kind of sad, so maybe it was done on purpose. But when this film finally got going, I really fell in love with it. I loved how organic it was and how it felt like an outpouring of creativeness from Favreau. If the ending hadn't felt so rushed, this might have gotten an extra grade point from me.

Acting is integral to this kind of movie and Favreau called on many of his famous friends to fill out this cast. All of them do a pretty good job, but I wouldn't say that many get their chance to shine. Robert Downey Jr. (who worked with Favreau on Iron Man) makes an appearance in this movie and kills it, but he really does only have one scene. Same can be said for Dustin Hoffman and Scarlett Johannson. They do a good job with what they're given, but there's not much to their characters. Sofia Vergara had a little bit more to do with her character and she does a fine job. And Oliver Platt is good as always in his role as the vitriolic and mean-spirited critic Ramsey Michel.

But it's the central cast that carries this film and they do a fine job. Favreau is very convincing in the lead role and he did a fabulous job. His chemistry with all the other actors was great and he's the perfect person to star in this movie, considering that it's semi-autobiographical. John Leguizamo is also surprisingly good. He's been stuck acting in garbage like Ride Along and the Ice Age movies recently, so it was refreshing to see him act in a movie where he could actually do a good job. He's very funny and his character provides the comic relief most often. For me, Emjay Anthony stole the movie. The kid works well with Favreau and just kills it in this role. He's going to be a star someday.

This movie is definitely a perfect fit for the summer season as it has a very light, fun feel to it. There are moments where the film is serious, but it manages to maintain the same tone throughout. It's always fun, but it knows that it wants to be serious at the same time. When some comedies suddenly try to do dramatic scenes, it becomes a problem. Chef knows that it's going to walk that fine line between comedy and drama and it walks the line well. The other reason I say that this movie is a perfect fit for summer is that the soundtrack and the score of this film is extremely flavorful and spicy. The Latin music is a nice touch and it adds a lot to the movie.

This is a movie of small touches. It doesn't shock you with its greatness. Instead it grows on you over time because of its heart, its performances and its atmosphere. The use of Twitter in the film was also brilliant and the movie makes great use of the complexities that social media can cause.

Finally, you can't discuss Chef without mentioning the food. This is a movie that will make you so, so hungry. After watching this movie, I just wanted to head down to South Beach and eat a Cubano. It would be smart of Favreau to start franchising these food trucks because I think they could rake in some money. All I know is that the food looks really tasty.

As much as I liked the film overall, there are problems with the script and the pacing. As I said, it did take me about a half hour before I really started to get invested in the plot of the film. Also, this movie drops characters like they're nothing. Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johannson and Bobby Cannavale are in the first half of this movie, but once Carl gets the food truck, they're never heard from again. And the ending is too abrupt. That was the only part of the movie that didn't feel completely natural.

Overall, Chef was an incredibly pleasant experience. The film is a tasty and authentic tale about the creative process that has its heart in the right place. The score is upbeat and pleasant and the acting is very, very good. Some narrative problems stop it from being a great film, but it's a very good one that I would encourage people to seek out. Just eat something before you see it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.8/10)

1 comment:

  1. "Chef” is a quite pleasing comedy road film, a great get away from the raunchy comedies of late.