Jon Favreau has matured as a writer and film maker over the last twenty years. Swingers was a catchy, silly comedy of its time that tapped into the ennui of Generation X. Zathura was a visual delight and enchanting tale of childhood. Iron Man and Iron Man 2 were unqualified box office smashes and catapulted Marvel studios into the juggernaut it is today as well as showing that Favreau can handle a film with a larger scope. His latest film, Chef, is an intensely personal exploration of relationships, passion, art, and the human spirit in the digital era.
The titular chef, Carl Casper, played by Favreau, was once the rising star of the food scene in L.A. The relationship with his restaurateur partner (played by a deliciously aggressive Dustin Hoffman) has soured, leaving Casper hamstrung creatively and powerless in his own kitchen. Casper communicates with others through his food. Indeed, his attempts to communicate outside of the culinary medium more often than not fall flat. Carl’s muzzled creativity leaves him frustrated and unable to express himself with his ten year old son Percy and ex-wife Inez, played by Emjay Anthony and Sofia Vergara. When a Twitter feud with an online food critic spirals out of control, Carl loses his job amid videos of a very public meltdown going viral.
What follows is Carl’s journey to rediscover the joy of cooking, his creative spirit, and to rebuild his broken family. It’s a fun and funny tale filled with some genuinely touching moments between Carl and Percy as they navigate the rocky waters of a divorced family. The Casper boys learn to function as father and son, perhaps for the first time. Like many Americana films, the journey isn’t just emotional but literal as the characters drive from Miami to L.A. in a food truck, stopping in cities along the way to explore the food.
Love of Food and Love Through Food
Apparent throughout the film is Favreau’s love of food. There are numerous montages of the chef at work, carefully crafting beautiful dishes. Favreau deftly uses Carl’s cooking to express the character’s emotions. When frustrated after a bitterly personal and negative review by the renowned food blogger, Carl spends the night in the kitchen crafting a whole new menu. He works through his frustrations the only way he knows how: by creating new foods to express himself. His sous chef Tony and line cook Martin, who seem to be Carl’s best friends, are delighted with the new food and temporarily re-invigorate Carl’s passion.
When Carl finally realizes he has no control over the kitchen, he walks out of the restaurant and leaves his job behind. At home he creates the extravagant, creative meal that he wanted to give the critic. It’s an explosion of creativity from an artist who has been throttled and strangled by the man holding his leash.
Early on we repeatedly see Carl trying to communicate through his cooking and failing. He’s reined in at work, prevented from making the food he wants to cook. These frustrations hurt his home life; wanting to cook better food, Carl devotes more to the restaurant than to his son. Carl wants to be a better father but can’t find the way. We watch as he lovingly prepares a perfectly browned grilled cheese at home for Percy, whose only response is, “Mom cuts off the crust.” It’s heartbreaking to watch father and son try to reach out to one another and not connect.
Food is an experience that can run the emotional gamut. Carl not only cooks for his family but for his lover. One cooking montage functions as a stand in for a love scene between Carl and Molly, the hostess played by Scarlett Johansson. It’s an effective piece that says more about the characters than if they had tumbled into bed together. Watching Molly watch Carl as he prepares a dish of pasta affords us a glimpse of how a beautiful young woman might fall into an on-again, off-again affair with an overweight, middle-aged cook.
Carl and Percy do eventually connect over a shared love of food and cooking. Their relationship grows and deepens as Percy learns to cook on the food truck. They understand one another when they speak the language of food. We get to see Percy try his first beignet and discover authentic Texas brisket. Along the way Carl imparts some of his philosophy on food and cooking to Percy. It’s about passion, artistic integrity, and touching other lives through food.
The climax of the movie comes as the food critic, played by Oliver Platt, approaches the food truck to compliment the chef on some truly amazing food. By letting his food speak for him, Carl finally gets a glowing, personal review that his Twitter feud and incensed confrontation couldn’t net from the blogger who nearly destroyed him. Carl’s journey is complete at this point – he’s rediscovered his passion for cooking and strengthened his family along the way. It proved to be more rewarding than he could have imagined.
It surprised me how much of the film is dedicated to an exploration of technology, specifically digital communication and the viral transmission of memes. While not a speculative story, I would classify Chef as science fiction. One of the many themes the film explores is the impact of technology upon society, which I consider the bedrock of science fiction. The conflict of the first act, which results in Carl’s unemployment, is an accidental Twitter feud with a food blogger. Carl’s ignorance of the digital medium is why things spiral out of control and leads to his time of crisis.
Further, the public meltdown Carl has when he confronts the food blogger goes viral as a video on YouTube. This notoriety makes Carl a toxic property in the L.A. food scene, preventing him from finding another job. The message is clear: the digital era amplifies the magnitude of a message. Not only can anyone see something that is posted online, but it’s possible that everyone will see it. The internet has opened up the world. It used to be that only a select few, typically those in power, could be heard by so many. Now anyone on YouTube or Instagram can influence the masses.
Carl is an artist dedicated to an ancient art. His life is firmly grounded in meatspace. It’s fitting, then, that he struggles with technology. Percy is a child of the information age and acts as the wizened old man, shepherding his father through digital travails. As Carl teaches Percy about cooking, Percy teaches Carl about social media. The kid is constantly taking photos, shooting videos, tweeting, and posting Vines. It’s the photos, videos, and Tweets that Percy posts along the way that lead to the success of the food truck. It becomes another bonding experience for the Caspers; they grow closer because technology lets them share more intimate moments than they would have without it.
The benefits of technology are shown to the viewer but come with a warning to use it responsibly. It asks questions but doesn’t prescribe a solution. That’s science fiction I like.
A Worthy Journey
I give Chef a 4 out of 5. It’s a genuinely touching film with many small laughs and a few big ones. The journey that Carl makes, both emotionally and literally, is well told.
The cast is excellent. Favreau is believable as a frustrated artist who needs to reconnect with his muse. Emjay Anthony delivers a wonderful performance as Percy, particularly considering his young age. John Leguizamo is utterly enjoyable as the rambunctious Martin. Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, and Bobby Cannavale are solid supporting cast members. I cherish Hoffman’s performance as a foul-mouthed, slimy, overbearing, and risk-averse restaurateur. The one performance that was jarringly out of place was Robert Downey, Jr. as Carl’s ex-wife’s ex-husband who finances the food truck. He’s completely over the top in an otherwise down to earth film.
Chef uses music made famous in the cities it visits. A Cuban band plays much of Miami and the soundtrack switches to jazz in New Orleans before sliding into guitar-driven blues in Austin, TX. The overall effect makes the movie feel homey and celebratory. Here are the places we love with their unique foods and music.
The film has some structural issues, the first act is overly long and the ending is a bit too twee, it never quite feels like it earns the final shot of the film. Again, I don’t think the scene with Downey, Jr. played well. But these problems are overshadowed by the sheer enjoyment of watching Favreau, Anthony, and Leguizamo drive across the country with wonder in their eyes.