There's a particular movie meta-genre that could go by either "labor of love," if I'm not feeling cynical, or "vanity project," if I am. This is the kind of film whose driving force is a "hyphenate," e.g., a writer-director-star or something of that ilk. Think: Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves" or Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" or Robert Duvall's "The Apostle." Most of these movies are worth seeing because, even though movies are intensely collaborative projects, labors of love tend of be purer artistic visions emanating from a single discrete source. Each such vision normally has a distinct aim, too: Costner went for an evocation of grandeur, loss, and human dignity; Gibson went for the gritty struggle to be free; Duvall went for spiritual conflict.
Jon Favreau writes, directs, and stars in the recent "Chef," a light, feel-good comedy about a high-end restaurant chef named Carl Casper who feels stifled by his career. Cooking the same conventional menu for the past several years at posh L.A. resto Gauloise, Casper wants to return to his creative, Miami-fueled, bad-boy roots and shake things up by introducing his customers to edgier culinary fare. His boss Riva (Dustin Hoffman in a brief role) will have none of it: Casper's current menu is what brings in the customers, and previous attempts at creativity have left people, according to Riva, either turned off or nonplussed. All of this comes to a head when Casper's food is trashed by prominent blogger and critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). Casper, introduced to the wonders and dangers of Twitter by his plucky son Percy (Emjay Anthony, an excellent child actor with a bright future ahead of him), tweets a challenge to Michel: come back to the restaurant and have some real food this time—asshole. But on the night that Casper tries to cook the menu of his dreams, Riva intervenes and issues an ultimatum: cook your normal menu or seek employment elsewhere. Outraged, Casper takes the latter route, leaving his sous-chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) in charge and his good friend Martin (John Leguizamo) flabbergasted at his abandoning ship.
So the major story arc of "Chef" is about a man in his early forties trying to find his creative voice again. The second story arc, which is arguably just as important, is about Carl Casper's relationship with his son and his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara, giving off a distinct "Charo" vibe for most of her screen time). Carl and Inez are divorced, but they're still on very good terms with each other (in fact, the movie gives us few clues as to why these two good souls ever got divorced in the first place). Inez sees how down and out the now-unemployed Carl is, and she proposes that he accompany her and Percy to Miami, the land of Carl's culinary roots. Inez's ulterior motive is to hook Carl up with her other ex-husband, Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.), who can provide Carl with a food truck. Carl returns to Miami, talks to Marvin, gets the food truck... and something clicks. From here on, what happens during the rest of the film is utterly predictable. And it involves a lot of Cubano sandwiches.
As I mentioned above, this is a feel-good movie: it's not about self-pity or tragedy or anything mawkish; it's just a light-hearted comedy about a talented chef who simply wants to feel alive again. The plot is a voyage from darkness to light, and all the characters in the film, even the antagonists, are likable folks who aren't truly evil. Special mention should go to John Leguizamo as sidekick Martin, whose friendship with and loyalty to Carl is the glue that holds the plot together. Leguizamo is easily one of the most affable, hilarious screen presences out there, and my feeling is that "Chef" would make little sense without him. Carl is a driven, artistic man who needs the counterbalance of a solid, reliable friend like Martin.
When I step back to consider the artistic significance of "Chef," I'm torn. On one hand, the movie isn't exactly profound. Because it's meant to be a light-hearted comedy, it neatly avoids the many potential problems that could have occurred among the various characters. We never see Carl and Martin in a heated argument over how to manage the food truck; we never see Carl and Inez screaming vitriol at each other; we never see Carl beating the crap out of Robert Downey's Marvin for insinuating that he and Inez had had sex fairly recently. "Chef" abandons realism in some ways while preserving a sense of authenticity in others: the moments of bonding between Carl and his son Percy, for instance, feel very real to me, as does the warmth of the friendship between Carl and Martin. Favreau's depiction of life in a high-end kitchen—followed by life in a sweaty, cramped food truck—also feels honest. So "Chef," along with being a comedy, is a bit of a vérité/fantasy mashup. Scarlett Johansson also stars as Molly, Carl's maybe-squeeze (and fellow toker) at Gauloise. Her presence, too, added to the sense of fantasy: it was a bit hard to take Johansson seriously as the movie's wisdom figure (she's the one who flatly tells Carl that he's unhappy and should leave Gauloise to follow his heart while also tending to the care of his son), even though Johansson went on to make "Lucy," a film in which she essentially becomes the ultimate wisdom figure: a goddess.
On the other hand, "Chef" is a labor of love which, to my mind, automatically makes it more profound than it would otherwise have been. We're getting a glimpse into Jon Favreau himself, and it's evident the man is a burly, kind-hearted teddy bear. He might have the chops to direct a big-time action movie like "Iron Man," but he's also an appreciator of the simple things in life, like food and family. And that's reassuring: it's heartening to know that Hollywood, evil and infernal though it be, has a few good souls working in it.
I'll leave you with this thought: "Chef" has widely been called "food porn" for its luscious scenes of cooking (I actually wish the movie had shown more cooking; Favreau, who had Kogi meister Roy Choi on board as a co-producer and food guru, was sent by Choi to culinary school to prep for his role), and it contains some jokes that, perhaps, only foodies will appreciate. For my money, one of the funniest of these jokes comes about ten minutes into the film. Carl has just had an argument with Riva about the menu that Carl is to cook that evening. Riva, who owns the restaurant, naturally wins the argument, telling Carl, "I think you should play your hits." Carl relents, and what follows is the speech he gives to the restaurant staff regarding the game plan for that night:
All right, let's go—pre-shift, guys! Big night tonight. Here's what we're doin'. We're gonna go with the favorites: starting with the caviar egg, scallop, French onion soup, frisée salad, lobster risotto, filet... and we're gonna finish strong with a crowd-pleaser: chocolate lava cake. Talk to Molly about wine pairings; lemme know when he [the food critic] gets here. Let's have fun. Put your heart in it, people. Let's have some fun. Good. Good.
I was rolling. While I don't consider myself a full-on foodie, I've watched enough Food Network to know a bit about what's in, what's out, what's cliché, what's passé—and Carl's litany of that night's food was a roll call of moribund cuisine. Chocolate lava cake? Seriously? You don't need to eat that at an upscale Brentwood restaurant when you can order lava cake at your local Chili's! And French onion soup? You can't get more typical than that at a Gallic-themed restaurant. Lobster risotto sounds perfectly safe and timid, as does filet mignon. So yeah: as I heard Carl recite the night's menu, I busted a gut. Later on, when critic Ramsey Michel sits down to dinner and takes a look at the French onion soup in front of him, Oliver Platt's facial expression is absolutely priceless.
See "Chef." It's not the deepest film in the world, but if you love looking at good food and you don't mind watching a predictably familiar, heart-warming story about a man once again following his passion, you'll have fun. Trust me.