I thought before I sat down to write this, I was going to do a piece crammed with as many cooking and food puns as I could think of. But to concentrate on the culinary aspects of this movie is to do writer/ director/ star Jon Favreau’s latest film a great disservice. Yes, there is amazing gastronomy throughout this film, but the cuisine is merely the medium, not the message. Instead, it’s a joyous celebration of family, fatherhood and following your passion. It’s a heartfelt exhortation to take a look at your life, understand what’s truly important and concentrate on doing what brings you happiness and fulfilment, not what makes you appear successful.
When disillusioned chef Carl Casper is blocked from changing the menu by the owner of the restaurant where he works, the resultant poor review combines with his social media naïveté to create a career-derailing online outburst which quickly goes viral (Twitter plays a huge part in the movie). Casper starts to re-examine his life, and with help from his ex-wife starts to rebuild both his relationship with his young son and rediscover his passion for cooking.
There’s a lot of publicity focussed on the star names in this: Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr – in fact, there’s even a quote on the poster from Screenthing saying ‘Robert Downey Jr is awesome’. Now, as a general statement of fact, I don’t have a problem with that, but the thing is, he’s in the movie for, like, five minutes in total. The big star names are mere cameos in “Chef”, and the film belongs to Sophia Vergara, John Lequizamo, Jon Favreau and young star Emjay Anthony.
Outside of her “Modern Family” comfort zone, this is by far the best performance I’ve seen from Vergara as she plays the ex-wife of both Downey Jr and Favreau’s characters. John Leguizamo is great as the loyal and supportive best friend who throws in his job to follow Chef Casper and help him rebuild his life but the film belongs to Favreau and Emjay Anthony. Their rekindled relationship as father and son is the touching, funny and glorious heart of this wonderfully affirming movie. There’s a natural chemistry between them that is so inviting that you’ll be tempted to throw in your job too, and join them on their cross-country journey of self-discovery.
The supporting cast are excellent, although their roles are small. Dustin Hoffman is delightfully pugnacious as the stubborn restaurant owner, stifling Casper’s creativity while believing he has his best interests at heart and Oliver Platt impresses as the critic who can’t disguise his disappointment in how Casper has failed to flourish as a chef. Johansson adds a dash of sensuality as Casper’s girlfriend and Maître d of the restaurant and Bobby Canavale adds some humour as a senior member of Casper’s team.
The story, written by Favreau, feels real and relevant and although it pays reverence to the art of cooking, it never disappears into its subject to become “Man Versus Food: The Movie”. Characters are always at the fore and it’s them who drive the movie forward. It’s a little bit ironic that as “Chef” is in cinemas, Adam Richman (of “Man Versus Food” fame) has seen his career take a similar turn for the worse after an unwise outburst on social media [WARNING: link uses spicy language]. Favreau’s direction is superb too, proving he’s equally adept at these more modest, character-driven pieces as he is high concept special effects blockbusters. The screen bursts with life, colour and flavour, picking up both the richness of the locations and the tiny details which make up everyday life.
While the ending feels a little too neat, you simply can’t begrudge this movie an extra helping of dessert. It’s a perfectly seasoned, expertly prepared and delightfully presented banquet of feel-good dramedy; a triumph for Favreau and a feast for the audience. I loved every morsel of this movie, and I’ll be buying both the soundtrack and the BluRay so I can savour it again and again.*
* – I held off the food puns as long as I could. Sorry.