You could draw a long, clean line from the 1996 film Swingers to the 2014 film Chef. On the surface they couldn’t be more disparate – one a generational touch-point about proto-hipsters creating their own culture during the swing revival of the mid 1990’s, the other a film about an artist chef getting back to his roots and reigniting his passions. But they both have at their center a sad man (Jon Favreau) at a crossroads in his life. In Swingers he was a young guy who couldn’t get over the heartbreak of his first love lost while struggling to break into acting. Then in Chef he’s a middle-aged guy stuck in a rut after a divorce and struggling to fuel his passion for cooking. Both films show the prototypical artistic man at different stages in his life struggling to find balance and deal with feelings of loss. As it turns out, Favreau, when not directing perfectly serviceable blockbusters for the Hollywood machine, is capable of tapping into the male psyche with great sensitivity and humor through really good indie screenplays.
Carl Casper (Favreau) is a formerly renowned chef who’s lost his zest for life while working at a successful Los Angeles restaurant run by a man (Dustin Hoffman) who stifles his creativity and forces him to stick to the same old menu even when a top critic (Oliver Platt) stops by for a visit. He has a loyal crew (Bobby Cannavale and a shockingly likable John Leguizamo) and a sassy sexy hostess/waitress (Scarlett Johansson) who urge him to reignite those fires, but it takes a public blow-up with the critic who pans the tired menu that goes viral through Twitter to force him to take stock of his life after losing his job. When his ex-wife (the saucy and smoking hot Sofia Vergara) suggests he come with her to Miami (where he originally got his groove on for cooking), he reluctantly takes the opportunity under the guise of bonding with his smart, tech-savvy ten year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony, one of the most unaffected and casually natural child actors to come down the pike in a while). Still, it takes his ex’s ex (Robert Downey Jr.) gifting him a food truck before he truly seizes the moment to find his passion again and reconnect with the ones he most loves.
The cooking of food serves as a metaphor for making connections and repairing human relationships. At its most sincere core, Chef is a father and son tale. At the “birth” of the food truck about half way through the film, the heart of the story beats most fervently in a great “Yes, Chef, No, Chef” scene between father and son where the two have a breakthrough and Carl explains the motivation behind his passion for cooking and his honest desire to share that experience, skill and joy with Percy. The moments between this pair ring the most authentic without every appearing staged or devolving into sentimentality.
By many measures, Chef is a near perfect film displaying no sense of stylistic flash and cutting most of the fluff. Each scene seems essential in Carl’s evolution. Favreau clearly tapped into his Hollywood in-crowd to populate this smaller film, yet the appearance of such big names (namely Johansson and Downey Jr.) in what are essentially bit parts never becomes a distraction and somehow avoids the smugness that so often plagues similarly cast George Clooney projects. Even when it seems the film must’ve have been partially funded by Twitter, the role social media plays in the plot fits nicely with the characters’ personalities and milieu of their world (our world). Just as Swingers remains relevant today despite the swing craze being long dead, so do I imagine Chef retaining appeal long past the social media it depicts because both films deal with the timeless theme of igniting human connections. Chef has a clear and consistent tone, always jovial, often heartfelt, but never frivolous. A behind the scenes snippet of one of the chef consultants cooking a grilled cheese sandwich during the end credits complete with artistic commentary validates how much care and thought went into the colorful culinary sequences.
It’s a shame then that it does hit one false note in the final moments where Carl’s reignited love of life brings about a streak of good luck that seems almost too much. *SPOILER ALERT* When he ends up with a new business partner in the very critic who once panned him, and remarried to the woman with whom his previous marriage seemed to be built only on their shared love of Cuban food and her innate hotness, it strains credibility. A more realistic and honest conclusion might have had him learning to move on from those painful relationships while still retaining the renewed bond with his son and sharing his passion with the world.
But I’d be a cruel bastard to harp on that when 99% of the film was so authentic and Favreau clearly had his big heart in the right place. Had I closed my eyes for the final moments and simply imagined some of the food (mmmmm arroz con pollo)…I wouldn’t have even noticed that one false note. Chef is so money…and it knows it.
Written by David H. Schleicher