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CHEF – Review
June 24, 2014
Ah, Summer. You do produce some of the best movies. The cold months’ offerings are often straight-faced tearjerkers: Hollywood trying to keep in shape. Summer, however – well, Summer is for pigging out. Blockbusters, comedies and feel-good romps abound. Not much of Summer’s cinema is all that good for us though. Transformers 4 is a chocolate-filled cronut: a flaky, bloated mess of sugar and fat that is momentarily enjoyable. Chef, then, a feel-good road tripesque/family film is a delicious Summer fruits trifle: a tasty, gorgeous-to-look-at and layered unhealthy treat. Kudos, Chef Favreau, what a yumtastic dessert.
Chef sees Studio Director Jon Favreau return to the low-budget and character-driven storytelling that got his foot in Disney and Marvel’s doors, and his indie hand is still just as spectacular as his pew-pew, bang-boom, sfx-heavy one.
Starring as the titular culinary master, Favreau plays Carl Casper, a workaholic food god in the kitchen and an unnattentive father in the real world. After his menu is creatively vetoed by his restaurant manager (Dustin Hoffman), Casper receives a scorching review from LA’s most influential food critic (Oliver Platt). Not taking the criticism lightly Casper spirals into a frenzy, distancing himself further from his family and colleagues until he explodes very publicly, becoming a social media phenomenon. Outcast from the LA restaurateur scene, Casper resigns to take his creativity on the road and renovates a food truck, reluctantly allowing his longing son to join him – a decision that allows Casper to rediscover a bonding love that food alone can’t give him. Awwwh.
The many differently flavoured layers of the film are what keeps Chef an interesting and delicious dish. Starting out about creative differences in the workplace – a not-so-transparent allegory for quashed imagination in Hollywood: something Favreau must have experienced repeatedly in his decade of Major Picture film-making – before turning into a familial dramedy and then an all-out road-trip (topped off with a most deux ex machina climax). There’s also a regular sprinkling of commentary on celebrity and social media throughout that comes close to but never crosses the self-parody line of no return. Really, though, it’s the film’s cloying sentimentality and straightforward simplicity that ties the whole thing together.
Helping sell the cream and custard is Favreau’s deftness for stellar casting and soundtracking choices that rival the ear of Zach Braff. Sensational young newcomer Emjay Anthony (as Casper’s oft downtrodden son) pulls some serious punches, coming out of nowhere and delivering the best child acting in cinema since Super 8. Favreau’s unlikely love interests, ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and totty waitress Molly (Scarlett Johansson) give small but impactful roles, and Favreau himself displays a fine range in his varying professional dad role.
Super-loyal sous chef, Martin (John Leguizamo) steals the show, though, with genuine-feel banter – thanks to Favreau’s tight script – and an electric chemistry with everyone on the screen – thanks to his being awesome. Backing the performances, narrative transitions and myriad of food-prep montages to keep the audience pumped is a soundtrack so upbeat and commercial that it’s hard not to get out of your seat and move your hips with your fellow cinemagoers. Numbers like Louie Ramirex’s ‘Ali Baba’ and Pete Rodriguez’s ‘I like it like that’ will one day be discovered by scientists to be the key to mind control.
Chef is just too irresistible to not like. It’s a colourful treat to look at and although its emotional beats and messages are a little heavy handed, the food imagery (which reaches salacious levels, obviously), feel-good nature and genuine air of hard work from the cast and crew is just too good to pass on. So go for it. Pig out this Summer but do it right: choose the soft, varied trifle rather than the bland, too-rich cronut.
CHEF is out in UK cinemas on June 25th
Stephen J. Bowron