Foodie film takes on big challengers
By Tim Pompey 05/29/2014
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo
Rated R for language, including some suggestive references
1 hr. 55 min.
Strange timing for this small-budget film. While enormous reptiles and streaking X-men are exploding in surrounding theaters, here’s a story about launching a food truck led by none other than Ironman director Jon Favreau.
Puzzling to be sure. But for Favreau, who cut his teeth on indie flicks like Swingers, perhaps it’s a return to his roots, a step away from Hollywood hoopla and a push toward something a little meatier (pardon the pun) and slice-of-life.
Considering the all-star cast he’s gathered, he must have some draw left from his blockbuster days. Big names like Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara, who all play minor roles, and they do add some much-needed spice to Chef to help push it toward its cross-country finale.
But what’s most striking is how Favreau chooses to approach the story — quiet, low-key, building familial connections rather than relying on comedy or plot twists or scandalous behavior. In fact, this film is so low-key, I can’t help but wonder if he’s searching here for something more humane and touching. It’s a deliberate step away from some of his recent productions, but you have to credit him for his pluck and courage. The question is does it work well? Hmm, yes and no.
Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is a noted Los Angeles chef who considers himself as much a food artist as a cook. He’s stressed-out and struggles to be a decent family man to his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony) and his ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara).
In the meantime, he has to work hard to please restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman), a demanding busybody who highly values his own opinions and keeps Casper’s menu under his thumb.
When high-powered food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) comes in to eat at the restaurant, Casper and Riva clash over how to approach the menu: Use what has worked (Riva) or dream up something special (Casper)?
Riva wins and the result, based on Michel’s bad review, is a downward spiral for Casper. A twitter war plus YouTube footage of Casper raging at Michel in the restaurant pushes Riva to fire Casper, or Casper to quit, depending on your perspective.
Inez has been pushing her ex to consider starting a food truck. When she and Casper take a trip to Miami to visit her Cuban father, the idea blossoms and the result is a delicious father-and-son Cubano road trip across America in their revamped carriage, El Jefe.
Favreau actually includes the food in this film as part of the story. Fixing meals to die for, the ingredients themselves are some of the elements that work in his favor and remind you of your favorite Food Network program.
While the story occasionally drifts toward blandness, there are some genuine moments of thoughtfulness and humor, particularly involving the wonderfully quirky John Leguizamo as Martin, Casper’s volunteer sous chef. (Wait until you learn about a new application for cornstarch!)
What’s more, the film’s relationship between father and son seems to work. Anthony is thoughtful and appealing without resorting to too much high drama and Favreau is solid, incorporating passion, obsession and insight in his role as a chef and father.
The film takes off when the truck leaves town and serves as a travelogue for great foods in America. From Miami to New Orleans to Austin, Chef lovingly reveals some tasty details about our favorite regional cuisines.
Even if you’re not drawn in by the story, you’ll surely enjoy the food prep (be sure to watch the end credits), which serves as this film’s great pull. The favorite room in the house is usually the kitchen and here, Chef invites you to take a front-row seat.