Written and directed by Jon Favreau
It’s been roughly 7 years since Pixar released their best film to date, Ratatouille, which manages to be both a celebration of food and of the creative spirit. A great artist, that film argues, can come from even the most unlikely place, and so the world should be encouraging of such new and important talent. One of Ratatouille’s many charms is its ostensible antagonist, the feared and famous food critic Anton Ego. If the pompous name wasn’t enough (as well as the character being voiced by the late, great Peter O’Toole), Ego looks almost like a cadaver and works in an office shaped like a coffin. At first, it feels like the film’s writer/director, Brad Bird, is going to give into the all-too-common depiction of the critic in modern cinema: an obnoxious, bloviating loudmouth who’s unable to accept a new artist because of their own personal and professional jealousies. But in the climactic moment, Ego tastes the title dish, made by the rodent lead, and is brought back to his childhood. Here, as in Ego’s triumphant review of Remy’s food, Bird reminds us that critics are as much people as the artists they critique, and are more nuanced than one-dimensional.
Anton Ego and Ratatouille are difficult to forget while watching Jon Favreau’s newest film, Chef; it’s equally impossible to ignore the unsubtle connection Favreau makes between his career as a director in the studio system and his lead character’s journey in Chef. Favreau started out as an actor and writer, breaking onto the scene with Swingers and then writing and directing Made; both of these indie buddy pictures with Vince Vaughn established Favreau as a fast-paced, quirky talent with an ear for the wicked and profane ways in which the 90s-era bro conversed. Since Made, however, it’s become challenging to see Favreau’s personal touch in movies like Elf, Iron Man, and Cowboys & Aliens. (The first two of those, however, are still quite good in spite of not seeming of a piece with Made or Swingers.) Cowboys & Aliens as well as Iron Man 2 felt as impersonal as possible; they were big, emotionless, lifeless blockbusters that disappointed critics as well as most audiences.
So now, finally, Favreau is trying to go back to basics with Chef, which he wrote. He plays Carl Casper, a well-known and well-liked chef working at a tony restaurant in Brentwood. He throws himself into his work, ignoring his patient and goodhearted son (Emjay Anthony) and his equally kind ex-wife (Sofia Vergara). However, he’s not-so-secretly unfulfilled and creatively stifled by his unimaginative boss (Dustin Hoffman); as the film opens, he’s stressed because his restaurant will be visited by a hugely popular food blogger (Oliver Platt). The blogger, once a champion of Carl’s early, edgy work, excoriates his safe and “needy” menu, sending Carl into a tailspin. After he confronts the blogger in public—and is filmed by the restaurant patrons in videos that soon go viral—Carl is forced to start all over, going with his son and ex-wife to Miami to kickstart a Cuban-sandwich food truck and get back to his roots.
Again, there’s not much subtlety here; Carl, it’s safe to assume, is Jon Favreau in the kitchen as opposed to on a movie set. Carl’s frustrations at being unable to be inventive or fresh at a high-paying job may be Favreau’s own at working on blockbusters with little to no personality. And Carl’s invective-filled diatribe to Platt’s blogger seems to be Favreau’s response to those people who took him to task for the disappointing Iron Man sequel and/or Cowboys & Aliens. But who is Favreau maddest at? That diatribe is played—partially—for laughs, but we’re never exactly meant to think Carl stepped too far over the line for mocking this blogger (who’s barely given an identity). Still, the criticisms lobbed at Carl aren’t exactly wrong; he’s unhappy at his current job and going back to basics revives his creativity in ways he couldn’t have imagined. So is he (and Favreau himself) mad at a critic for saying nasty things, or mad that many of those nasty things are true? Whatever the case, Chef would’ve improved by jettisoning the blogger subplot; while it’s only a minor part of the film, Platt appearing in just a couple scenes, it’s the inciting incident and only serves to prove how few filmmakers appreciate the nuance necessary in portraying critics in their work. Though Platt’s character is far less cartoonishly depicted as other critics in recent films, it’s still an unnecessary sidebar that mostly exists to make Carl look more noble and heroic, and actually makes Favreau and Carl look as childishly needy as the blogger states.
What’s more, the meat (pardon the pun) of the picture is Carl starting up his food-truck business, which takes up the second half of Chef. The major flaw here, granted, is that once Carl starts over—with help from his ex-wife’s first ex-husband, played in a cameo by Iron Man himself, Robert Downey, Jr.—there’s an utter absence of conflict. The fractious relationship between Carl and his son is wholly repaired on the cross-country trip from Miami to Los Angeles with little acrimony, and the food truck itself never wants for long lines and satisfied customers. However, it’s the second hour that highlights Favreau’s greatest strength as a writer (his directing remains competent if unremarkable): letting characters riff off each other. Though Vaughn doesn’t show up in Chef, Favreau gets to banter with John Leguizamo, as Carl’s friend and sous chef; these easygoing interactions are the best part of Chef, and it’s a shame that we have to wait for the plot to essentially resolve itself to get there.
Chef is not wanting for talent or chemistry or humor; Favreau uses his ensemble, including Hoffman, Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Platt, Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and Vergara, well, even if a few of them are but glorified day players. Chef is not terribly surprising—even in the finale, where Carl predictably has to face off with that blogger again, which once again calls to mind Ratatouille, to this film’s detriment—but it’s moderately charming. Jon Favreau’s early, edgy work is what made him a viable director in Hollywood, even if the studio system pounded away his personality so that he could make workmanlike genre blockbusters. Though it’s not as outrageous or hilarious as Made, Chef is proof that Jon Favreau still has some of the talent he started with; on the flip side, watching this film while knowing that his next movie is another studio blockbuster, a Jungle Book reboot, is a little depressing. Favreau needs that edginess to thrive.
— Josh Spiegel