Chef (2014)
Tuesday, May 20, 2014 at 02:20PM
Ian Simmons in Chef [2014]


For awhile, I was bummed that I'd failed to post a review of Chef in time for its expanded release last weekend. Jon Favreau's latest is the film to beat this year, and when I saw it a month ago I lamented the embargo that kept me from singing its praises. But schedules and obligations are what they are, and fate has a plan for us all--which is why I couldn't properly write about Chef until after I'd seen and reviewed Gareth Edwards' Godzilla.

Followers of Favreau's Hollywood career will love this touching and hilarious metaphor of a film, which finds the writer/director/star opening up on topics as big as selling out to as intimate as raising a son in an industry that rewards complete commitment. I don't know Gareth Edwards, but he appears to be on a similar trajectory to Favreau and might view Chef as a highly entertaining cautionary tale.

But I'll get back to that in a bit. If you're unaware of Favreau's significance, beyond being "that guy from Swingers" or "Iron Man's goofy bodyguard", Chef is still an engrossing stand-alone experience. He stars as Carl Casper, a rock-star L.A. Chef who's smarting from a scathing review by influential restaurant critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). The write-up claims that Casper's years in the big leagues have drained his food of the very gusto and creativity that got him noticed. On the day of the critic's return, Casper rallies sous chefs Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Cannavale) to prepare a fresh and exciting menu.

Unfortunately, the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) insists on his crew sticking with the conventional menu. The safe product they turn out every day is what keeps asses in seats, he reasons--critics be damned. Fighting every burning twinge of artistic integrity, Casper relents and does his very best version of bland in the name of keeping his job. I'm not spoiling anything by saying that, through a series of events both predictable and not, the blustery chef walks off the job and spends some time in the soul-searching wilderness.

When a friend (Robert Downey Jr.) gives him an old, beat-up taco truck, Casper rediscovers his roots. He spends days scrubbing, scrapping, and making it over with his estranged son, Percy (Emjay Anthony) and Martin by his side. The result is a beautiful mobile restaurant that serves up passionately made, delicious Cuban sandwiches. The trio embark on a road trip (from Florida, if I recall correctly--where they picked up the truck--back to Emjay's mom, played by Sofia Vergara). Little Percy is a master of social media, and he blasts Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram updates to Casper's fans as to where the truck will stop next. The trio quickly develop a following, and Casper gets the double-joy of rediscovering his art and his son.

You'll have to watch Chef to find out where the journey ends. Some may be turned off by the film's saccharine tidiness, but I loved every second of it. In a movie climate dominated by destruction and self-serious heroes, it's refreshing to see a protagonist who lives in a world of opportunity and redemption, where art can both save the soul and make others happy. Favreau's award-ready performance paints a very real portrait of a man who has been so consumed by mediocrity that he doesn't realize how significantly his once proud flame has diminished.

At the beginning of the film, we see that Casper's constant toiling has shut out his kid and ended his marriage--all in the pursuit of a job he only thinks he still believes in. It takes a critic (who is also a fan, which gives his words the sting of veritas) to stir his sleeping greatness, and when Favreau screams at Michel ("It hurts!"), the screen buckles under the weight of his sincere disappointment, rage, and impotence. It's a stunning moment that keys us into the fact that Chef is as much therapy as it is art.

What does this have to do with Godzilla? Digging into Chef's metaphor (more like poking; the allusions are right there), one can see how Casper's trajectory mirrors Favreau's. For more than a decade, fans have supported the auteur in projects small and large, but that relationship has been sometimes rocky. For every Iron Man, there's an Iron Man 2 or a Cowboys & Aliens. Granted, those films got bogged down in script issues more than directing missteps, but they still tainted Favreau's brand a bit--leaving some to question where the spunk, the spine, and the creativity had got off to. Chef appears to be at once an admission that Favreau had lost his way, and a giant "screw you" to those who would tear him down for simply having an imperfect creative journey.*

Looking at Godzilla, which is an apologist's dream of a summer blockbuster, it's easy to wonder how Edwards (who gained a ton of respect for his 2010 indie, Monsters, and was then given the keys to Warner Bros' franchise-in-the-making) might fall into this same trap. While I didn't care for Monsters, it at least had a voice--whereas Godzilla is simply two hours of savvy, branded noise. Chef is an extended hand of friendship to all filmmakers who've just gotten a taste of success, a signal that the path to riches is tempting but can be creatively unsatisfying in the long run. Favreau's message is that creative passion only dies if the artist extinguishes it--consciously, or through the long, soft path of compromise. Luckily for all of us, he has made a wildly entertaining and moving beacon of redemption that not only goes down easy, but is nourishing as well.

*I'm as guilty of this as anyone, maybe even more so. 

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