Jon Favreau as Carl Casper
John Leguizamo as Martin
Emjay Anthony as Percy
Sofía Vergara as Inez
Bobby Cannavale as Tony
Oliver Platt as Ramsey Michel
Dustin Hoffman as Riva
Scarlett Johansson as Molly
Robert Downey Jr. as Marvin
Directed by Jon Favreau
The popularity of "food porn" has exploded over the past ten years thanks to the likes of the Food Network and cooking shows on just about every major network, a trend that's permeated many a film during this era of "foodie"-ness. In the first movie he's written and directed since "Made," filmmaker Jon Favreau takes advantage of people's desire to have their mouths water at the sight of beautifully cooked and filmed food without using it as a crutch, instead creating a strong and relatable character and allowing us to follow him on a very personal journey.
We meet his character, hot L.A. chef Carl Casper, as he's in the kitchen with his ever-present sous chef and line cook (Bobby Cannavale, John Leguizamo). Word has come around that an important food critic is coming to the restaurant so they're prepping a special menu to showcase Casper's talents, something his boss (Dustin Hoffman) squelches, wanting him to stick to the restaurant's bland regular menu. Casper's food is slammed and the review goes viral, leading to a Twitter feud with the critic, played perfectly by Oliver Platt, and Carl's chance at a do-over leads to an altercation at the restaurant that gets him fired as he aimlessly tries to figure out what to do next. Not working gives Carl the opportunity to reconnect with his 10-year-old son Percy who he's neglected as his career has taken off, while trying to find that new direction.
From the very opening scene of "Chef," one is quickly reminded what a solid screenwriter Favreau was before going on to direct big studio blockbusters, and this is a sharp, tightly-written screenplay that works on many levels. It's obvious how much time Favreau must have spent with chefs both in the kitchen and off-duty to get into the proper mindset to create a believable setting and characters. The use of Twitter and social media as part of the story gives the film even more relevance to present day and one can only imagine Favreau has included some of his own experiences in there.
Favreau's performance is one of his best in many years, creating a well-rounded character, an imperfect one for sure but one you're immediately invested in. His sharply-written dialogue allows him a lot of fun interplay, whether it's with Leguizamo or with his son, played by talented newcomer Enjay Anthony. The scenes between Favreau and this young actor are the strongest ones in the film, Carl being so completely out of touch with social media and technology allowing for some solid laughs, but them also sharing a number of incredibly poignant moments that make up the true core of the film.
Favreau likely pulled in some favors to get the likes of Scarlett Johansson to play restaurant hostess Molly, but everyone seems well cast including Sofia Vergara as Carl's ex-wife Inez… and then Robert Downey Jr. shows up as her ex-husband Marvin, a high maintenance Miami entrepreneur who offers to help Carl get his creative juices flowing by giving him an old food truck, a real fixer-upper that requires a lot of work. Downey only has one scene with Favreau but the combination of Favreau's words and Downey's delivery is classic.
While the first hour mainly deals with Carl's problems with the publicity his feud with the food blogger causes and how that affects his relationships, the film transforms into something different once Carl travels down to Miami with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and his son. It's not necessarily a bad change, since it maintains the fun mix of music and food as it turns into a road trip with Carl, Percy and Leguizamo's Martin driving the food truck from Miami back to Los Angeles. Throwing in any sort of conflict or drama at that point may feel forced, as it's mainly a shout-out travelogue to cities like New Orleans and Austin, but it does work as a resolution to Carl's journey.
The Bottom Line:
Funny, poignant and impeccably written, Jon Favreau's "Chef" never relies solely on its tasty-looking food to win over the audience … and yet, it's probably the best "foodie" movie since "Ratatouille."