1 hour, 54 minutes
One of the incongruous facts about Hollywood is that more money does not necessarily mean higher quality. In fact, much of the time it seems as though big budget blockbuster directors, such as this week’s Jon Favreau, often find the most success, at least in an aesthetic sense, when they are constrained by a small budget and a necessarily more intimate story to tell.
You see it all the time — Sam Raimi, director of the “Spider-Man” series, as well as other high budgeted fare, found early success with a cheap and cheesy, but nonetheless terrifying, “The Evil Dead.” George Lucas may have made his mark in a galaxy far, far away, but very little he’s ever done can match the pure joy of “American Graffiti.” Even Steven Spielberg famously was forced to use creative problem solving to work around a malfunctioning shark. Look how that turned out.
So it should come as no surprise that the director of the first two “Iron Man” films, “Cowboys & Aliens,” and the upcoming live-action version of “The Jungle Book,” should be able to create such an enjoyable treat with his tiny love letter to fine cuisine, “Chef.”
Favreau stars as Chef Carl Caspar, a formerly high profile chef at the mid-point of his career. Carl works for a well-known restaurant with a great reputation, but is getting stale. The same menu, the same techniques, the strictures of working for someone else, it’s all starting to get to him. His success, that people actually really like his standard set of dishes, is proving to be a double-edged sword.
When Carl learns that a famous food critic, Ramsey Michel, is coming to taste his fare, our hero plans to triumphantly reinvigorate his spirit with a brand new menu. Unfortunately, reinvention isn’t on the menu for Carl as restaurant owner Riva, in a small role by Dustin Hoffman, nixes the whole plan. On the defensive, and then later as a novice user of the popular social media program Twitter, things go spectacularly, amazingly wrong for Chef Carl.
When the dust settles, he’s out of a job and even more estranged from his 10-year old son Percy, played very well by new-comer Emjay Anthony. Carl’s ex, Inez, played by the lovely and talented Sofia Vergera, suggests a trip to Miami to meet with a guy about a food truck, and the rest is history. Part food porn, part road trip flick, part father/son bonding film, “Chef” is heartwarming and fun from beginning to end.
I don’t exactly understand how an actor can direct a film and star in it, but in the case of “Chef” Favreau pulls a Clint Eastwood and appears in nearly every scene of the film. He’s great, his best performance to date, but the fact that the rest of the cast is given ample opportunity to shine is a testament to Favreau’s skill as a director.
Also excellent is John Leguizamo in the role of sidekick, sous chef and all-around best-buddy Martin. Leguizamo has the ability to be overbearing as an actor, often irritating, but here he is perfect, understated, funny, and the perfect foil for Carl’s oversized insecurities.
Favreau draws upon his high profile friends to get appearances by heavyweights like Hoffman and Robert Downey Jr., but even though we are in a heyday of celebrity chefs and popular food television, he doesn’t try to shoehorn in unnecessary cameos from the likes of Alton Brown or Gordon Ramsey. Instead, he lays on authenticity, using real Cuban musician Jose C. Hernandez as Carl’s singer father-in-law, and including a sequence at famous Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas.
There isn’t much about “Chef” that is terribly deep or that you haven’t seen before, admittedly, but rarely have you ever seen a basic story told this well. That’s a sentiment that goes for the food in the film, too — simple food, well prepared, with love. What more is there to ask in a meal, or in an evening out? “Chef” is delicious.
“Chef” is rated R for language. There’s plenty of it, but it’s not gratuitous and not particularly dirty, either. It, like the rest of the film, feels authentic, and is the only reason for the rating.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.