Film Review: Chef

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Plot: After a bad review and a public meltdown, Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) returns to his humble roots and starts a food truck, while also bonding closer with his ten year old son (Emjay Anthony).

Jon Favreau takes a break from the blockbuster arena, and returns to small scale filmmaking with Chef. While I’m not in love with this film, he’s probably the better for it. Chef has a lot of engaging performances, is enjoyable enough, and you can tell people like working with Favreau. While this is by far his best effort since Iron Man (2008), I’m still not enamored with Favreau as a director. But before we get into the characters, the plot, and all that mumbo jumbo, the reason I ultimately walked away from Chef a tad frustrated is because Favreau touches on two pet peeves that I have a hard time forgiving.

Photo Credit: Merrick Morton
Photo Credit: Merrick Morton

Favreau’s last two films were Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens. While some people probably enjoyed those movies, we can agree for the most part they weren’t very good, especially the latter. In this film, Favreau blatantly whines and complains about the critical reaction to his work, but uses this chef character and the art of cooking in place of himself and his films. There’s a moment where he talks with his son about a big critic coming to his restaurant, and how early in his career he was praised, but now there’s a bunch of haters who like to crap on his work. Wow. Sound familiar? If this was the only moment that touched on this, I’d be annoyed, but could let it slide. Unfortunately, there’s a big scene in the first act where the chef blows up at an online food critic about how he works hard, and how his words can really hurt, and how about you try what I do, it’s hard. Okay, I have a lot to say, and this is going to divert slightly away from the review, so fair warning.

You might say I’m reading too much into it, but in my opinion, this is Favreau complaining to audiences, but film critics in particular. As a film critic, I understand filmmaking is hard, and directors are especially put under pressure I can’t even begin to imagine. I have no doubt that hours and hours of blood, sweat, and tears go into movies like Movie 43 and Jack & Jill. I’m dead serious on that. But at the end of the day, I would say this to Jon Favreau: boo fucking hoo. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but this is the career you’ve chosen. Are there certain critics who have personal vendettas, and say things just to get hits and noticed? Absolutely. I can’t speak for them. I can only speak for myself. So when Jon Favreau looks into the camera in Chef, and the subtext of the scene is yelling about how Cowboys & Aliens was treated unfairly, I take personal offense to that. Again, I have no doubt Favreau put his heart and soul into Cowboys & Aliens, but the movie sucked. Sometimes you work hard on something, and dedicate years of your life to it, but for whatever reason, the end result just isn’t there. That’s filmmaking. When I trash a film, I don’t do it just to be funny. I’m giving you an honest emotional reaction I had to the movie. It’s nothing personal, Jon Favreau. Instead of whining, how about you go and make a better movie next time.

Photo Credit: Merrick Morton
Photo Credit: Merrick Morton

Okay, now that we got that out of our system, back to the review. My other pet peeve is the over use of social media. This is more of a personal problem for me, because while it’s used effectively in the film, I found it really obnoxious, and also an extension of the whole Favreau complaining about movie criticism thing. When the idea of Twitter first comes up in the film, it seemed like a mere throw away joke, but it actually becomes a linchpin through out the whole movie. I guess I’m not ready for social media to be incorporated as major plot points in a film, but it’s time to suck it up and get with the times. Bottom-line: it could have been toned down though.

Despite all my complaining about Favreau’s personal vendetta, his performance is very strong. He’s definitely passionate here, and for a movie about a chef, I get that cooking means a lot to him. There’s a couple great scenes Casper has with his son about why he loves cooking that were very effective. Speaking of the son, Percy is played by Emjay Anthony. The actor does a good job, but the kid’s dialogue was very on the nose at times.

All the supporting characters were great, as Favreau really put together a fantastic cast. John Leguizamo is a guy I really want to see get more work. Very early in his career he did a lot of crap, but he’s very toned down now, and just a really likable actor. Bobby Cannavale, who’s been a critical darling over the years, is really charismatic and charming as well. Sofia Vergara as Casper’s ex-wife doesn’t get a ton to do, but Vergara gets a lot out of what’s written. Scarlett Johansson has completely transformed her career from someone I thought was mediocre who would go away quickly, to one of the better actresses working in Hollywood. She isn’t given a huge role, but she’s just a delight to have in your film.

Photo Credit: Merrick Morton
Photo Credit: Merrick Morton

The one performance I didn’t care for, but thankfully he’s only in one scene, is Robert Downey Jr. Let me be very clear about this – Robert Downey Jr. is a marvelous actor, but I’m over it. I’m over the snappy, one-liners, overly charismatic Robert Downey Jr. Yeah, he basically plays Tony Stark in the movie, and it’s such a forced scene. You really don’t need it, as it’s just an excuse to have a Robert Downey Jr. scene. I hope he gets back to doing roles like Tropic Thunder at some point. I can’t take Tony Stark anymore, I’m going to explode. Also, Dustin Hoffman pops up in the film. He’s fine, but is kind of a waste.

Aside from the pet peeves I mentioned, while I enjoyed Favreau’s direction, this is a very weak screenplay. Once Casper gets the food truck, aside from a couple conversations with his son, the movie turns into one big happy road trip. There are no other conflicts or tension whatsoever. While I enjoy the characters, and they are very likable, there really isn’t a whole lot to latch onto for the entire second half. The film is also very slow, and you could have easily lost twenty minutes, although the end wraps up way too quickly. The screenplay also completely abandons one of the subplots between Casper and Johansson’s character. It’s left totally unresolved.

While I wish the movie was funnier, you’ll enjoy it for the most part, as the characters are very easy to root for. It’s very schlocky though, especially with a lot of the music choices. Also, I would recommend eating beforehand, as this movie will make you desperately hungry. I give a lot of credit to Favreau for making the cooking scenes very effective. Despite a haphazard screenplay, Chef is a decent outing, but the Favreau subtext really irritated me. Maybe it’s unfair, but as I said, it’s my honest emotional reaction to the film.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Slightly Better than ‘Meh’)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.