“Chef” Undone by Favreau’s Ego
There’s nothing wrong with Jon Favreau’s Chef that an objective set of eyes and a judicious editor couldn’t fix. Far too long as well as self-indulgent, this movie is obviously a passion project for the filmmaker who leaves no creative hat unworn as he writes, stars, directs and produces this slight entertainment. He also called in quite a few favors as this little project that can’t sports a cast that includes Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara, Oliver Platt and Dustin Hoffman, a roster that would cost millions had they asked for their usual fees. Without question, everyone’s heart is in the right place as at its core, the film is about maintaining your artistic integrity in a world in which compromise is the way to financial success. Yes, this is this crew’s declaration that, despite being in movies that have made billions, they’re all artists at heart struggling to make their true voices heard. Too bad this message gets lost in the morass that is Favreau’s ego.
He’s front and center as Carl Casper, a once promising chef who’s grown complacent in the California sun, running a trendy eatery for Riva (Hoffman), a businessman with his eye on the bottom line. However, something stirs in him when he finds out that a renowned food critic (Oliver Platt) is going to be reviewing his food and he goes out of his way to impress, intent on preparing a special menu. Unfortunately, Riva insists that he not deviate from his set menu, a disastrous decision as a scathing notice is the result, which sends Casper into a professional and personal tailspin. His ex-wife Inez (Vergara) suggests that he return to Miami, where he first discovered his passion for food and operate on a much smaller scale, namely out of a food truck. This hardly appeals to the egotistical chef, but he’s ultimately convinced of the validity of the undertaking, particularly when he realizes this will give him the opportunity to reconnect with his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony).
Though far from original, this isn’t a bad premise for a movie. Yet Favreau waits far too long to set the wheels of his plot in motion as he gives us one sequence after another showing Casper at work, concocting culinary delights that everyone raves over while he desperately waits for their signs of approval. This goes on for nearly a half-hour before the fatal review is written and another half-hour passes before his decision to give the food truck a go occurs. Along the way, when we’re not bludgeoned over the head with cooking scenes, we’re treated to moments when Casper acts like a petulant child, pouting over his lot in life and ignoring his wonderful son.
Favreau does the film no favors when he turns it into a travelogue of familiar hip spots that are suppose to give the movie an air of validity and a trendy edge. As Casper, Percy and fellow cook Martin (John Leguizamo) go from Miami, to New Orleans and Austin on their way to Tinsel Town, we must endure prolonged musical interludes with local talent, forced banter between father and son and, yep, more scenes of food preparation. Without a doubt, the grub looks great but it is shot and lingered on in such a way that it takes on a fetishistic quality. I couldn’t help but think that Favreau’s intent was to show that yes, he can cook too, especially in a scene where we’re meant to believe that the comely hostess (Johansson) at the restaurant could be seduced with a plate of his pasta. What a guy!
Cloying and narcissistic, Chef is the product of a filmmaker who’s adrift, someone who much like Casper, has sold out, lost his edge and is suddenly desperate to be lauded by the audience he abandoned. This is not the Favreau that burst on the scene with the charming “Swingers” but the one that gave us the meandering and empty Iron Man 2. That the director longs to return to his indie roots is a shame; it’s obvious he has no clue how to get there.