This was an interesting request, coming as it did from a friend who had first bonded with me over a shared love of Korean action movies. There isn’t any action in Chef, nor is it Korean. It’s just an enjoyable movie about a fairly ordinary theme, the middle-aged man trying to come to terms with his life, while reconnecting with his son.
Chef is definitely a Jon Favreau production ... he wrote it, he directed it, he starred in it. Making the main character be a chef allows for a slightly different setting for the standard tale. Favreau is not a chef, but he put a lot of work into learning the business, and he’s pretty convincing as he performs the job. His passion for cooking is clear and contagious. He has enough prestige among actors that he was able to get an impressive cast for a relatively low-budget film: Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Canavale, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., Amy Sedaris. Vergara, especially, is used well ... she tones down her usual overly cartoonish stereotype, and is much the better for it. John Leguizamo adds joy, and young Emjay Anthony as the son makes a good team with Favreau.
You’ve got a nice cast of actors who seem to be having a good time, you’ve got lots of yummy food, you’ve got a fine soundtrack. I can see why my friend recommended Chef.
But there is something puzzling going on here. Favreau’s chef, Carl Casper, is well-known in the world of fine cuisine, but his imagination is frustrated by the rut he finds himself in. He seeks a new beginning by opening a food truck, and it’s a big success, not only with the public, but with the Chef Carl, who is very happy and who connects with his son. The comparison between the chef and Favreau is obvious. He started doing improv, worked his way into acting in indie films, wrote and starred in the indie success Swingers, and began is directing career with Made, which had a budget of $5 million. Somewhere along the line he made a big jump: handed Iron Man and given a $140 million budget, he helmed a huge box office success that was also popular with critics. Iron Man 2 had an even bigger budget, and was even more popular at the box office. As a director, Favreau was like the title character in Chef.
Chef Casper finds himself by returning to his culinary roots, just as Chef is Favreau returning to the basics. But the “happy” ending of Chef comes when Casper is able to turn his food truck business into a high-end restaurant. He has more freedom than he did in his earlier restaurant job, but the point remains: he finds himself in the food truck, but the result is a return to the big time.
So, is Favreau saying that a movie like Chef is closer to Favreau’s true heart of filmmaking? Or is it just a refueling before he returns to big-budget blockbusters?
There’s room for both kinds of films, of course, but the message of Chef is muddled. It’s a nice movie, with individual scenes that hit home. But it is best taken for its surface sheen, not for anything deeper. 7/10. For a companion film, try Big Night.