'Chef' Movie Review: An Intimate & Autobiographical Return to Form by Jon Favreau
Back in 2008, director Jon Favreau was a hero.
The auteur had just given the world the first "Iron Man" movie. He already had a proven track record with a number of other major hits, but "Iron Man" seemed like a new beginning for the filmmaker.
However, his place in Hollywood was not a particularly stable one. Just a few years later his "Iron Man" sequel was blasted critically; a year later, his "Cowboys & Aliens" flopped critically and at the box office. The fall seemed swift for the filmmaker. But Favreau has not given up. He has returned to his roots of indie filmmaking with "Chef," arguably his most autobiographical film to date.
It is not difficult to find the introductory paragraph being metaphorically explored in this film. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a big shot chef who is about to get reviewed by the biggest food critic in the world. He has a team of workers ready to go to war for him. But not everything is sunny for Carl. The restaurant owner Riva (played by Dustin Hoffman) does not want him to experiment with the menu, creating a battle for creative control. Despite his best efforts, Carl (and by extension Favreau) is not only reminded of who is really in charge, but is forced to submit to Riva's will.
"Play your greatest hits," says Riva. But the restaurant critic is seemingly not interested in Carl's safe recipes and gives him a horrific review that goes viral on Twitter. Aided by his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), Carl tries out the social network and incites a war of words with the critic. The result? Another opportunity at redeeming his initial poor effort. Unfortunately Riva gets in the way yet again and when faced with compromising his integrity, Carl quits. He confronts the critic and hits his lowest point when that outburst goes viral.
As if matters were not already bad for Carl, he has a rather troubling family situation. He remains the best of friends with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) but makes his son Percy feel like a burden. But when Inez offers him an opportunity to restart in Miami (the place where he first experienced success) with a food truck, Carl takes on the challenge and starts from scratch.
The film is tremendously successful in expressing this journey of redemption for both the filmmaker and his cinematic alter ego, but it delves into a numerous contemporary issues such as the omnipresence of social media. Twitter, Vine and Facebook all get some product placement, but it is integrated into the storyline in a way that few major studio blockbusters are capable of. When social media is first introduced, Carl is sitting in his apartment with Percy. Carlo asks his son to teach him how to use Twitter, leading Percy to remark that he wishes that he and his father would engage in more activities together. From this point forward, social media becomes a major unifier throughout the film. In one hilarious scene, a park security guard recognizes Carl and asks him to take some pictures with him. Inez is able to keep track of the food truck's journey while Percy becomes a marketing genius utilizing the power of social media. The praise of social media's power can come off as a bit exaggerated at times, but there is still a great deal of cleverness in the execution.
The performances are all top notch with newcomer Anthony stealing almost every single scene that he is. The young boy comes off calm and relaxed in the initial scenes as he endures his father's rejection, but his frustration slowly comes through until the two confront one another in a potent scene halfway through the film. From there, the boy combines his charm with innocence to tremendous effect. Just watch his reaction as Carl and his friend Martin (John Leguizamo) utilize cornstarch to relieve themselves of humidity in their genitals.
The Latino stars featured in the film also shine brightly. Leguizamo delivers one of his finest performances in years as Carl's sidekick Martin. He is full of energy and an optimism that contrasts wonderfully with the more introspective turn of Favreau. The director comes off as larger than life at the start, but the humbling he endures brings down the performance to a more restrained level.
Vergara, of "Modern Family" fame, brings spunk and allure to the role of Inez; Scarlett Johansson brings sensuality and compassion to her performance as the restaurant hostess Molly. Hoffman commands the screen in his showdowns with Favreau, while Robert Downey Jr. is hilarious in his single scene.
While "Chef" certainly expresses Favreau's resurrection as a filmmaker metaphorically and literally, the movie turns out to be far more. It is a celebration of humanity, community and the individual's ability to have a positive impact on those around them. And it will also make you hungry!
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