After a foray into the blockbuster world, filmmaker Jon Favreau has settled back into his bread and butter (a bit literally), independent comedy. “Chef” is a feel-good movie that goes down easy, especially for any self-described “foodies” in the audience.
Call it “food porn” if you will, but Favreau taps into contemporary society’s obsession with food as an experience in this film, which also relies heavily on social media, particularly Twitter, as a means to propel the story forward. In fact, it might be the first film with a main plot conceit that hinges on social media (aside from “The Social Network,” obviously).
Carl Casper (Favreau) is a renowned chef working in a popular restaurant. When big-time food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) comes to review the restaurant, Carl puts aside his plans for an ambitious menu and sticks to his classics at the urging of his owner (Dustin Hoffman), only to get reamed by Michel. Newly introduced to Twitter by his young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), Carl engages in a war of words with Michel and ultimately quits his job. At the urging of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), Carl returns to Miami, where he made his career, with his son in tow and starts a food truck serving Cuban sandwiches.
“Chef” serves up more fun and little conflict, but it has a certain road trip and nostalgia quality that Favreau can get away with it. Sequences of mouthwatering food prep shots also infuse that same entertainment value one gets from watching Food Network or a Bravo food show. Supporting roles from Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” stars Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. don’t hurt either, especially because the latter hasn’t done anything small in the last six years.
Although he’s become more known for his directing in the last five years, Favreau gives his best performance in recent memory, perhaps ever. Carl is a snippy chef with an ego and an attitude problem who can work his sensitive side when he needs. Favreau really owns all his screen time despite a career of supporting performances.
What really stands out about “Chef,” however, is its modernity, or how in tune Favreau is our world in 2014 in terms of how we behave, what we like and how we communicate with each other. “Chef” is highly representative of the times, the kind of movie you might show to children in future generations to explain American culture in the 2010s. The way eating and food have evolved into something that connects people in a digital space is not lost on Favreau, and how prolific social media is in the film proves that it fascinates him too. What happens to Carl plays out the full spectrum of how social media can tear people’s lives apart, yet also build them back up. That’s a lot of power.
“Chef” has the exact kind of joie de vivre that you want in a summer indie, and is somewhat of an antidote for those who want feel-good independent films that don’t completely focus on a young boy’s coming of age. Carl’s relationship with his son is important to the story, but it’s mostly there to add heart.
But no matter how you take to the story, don’t sit down to watch “Chef” on an empty stomach – or at least be sure to have a delicious place in mind to go afterward.
Written and Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara