Saturday 18 January 2020

Movie Review: Chef (2014)

A lighthearted drama, Chef explores new beginnings in the story of a once-celebrated cuisinier rediscovering his touch and reconnecting with family.

In Los Angeles, chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is being stifled by his restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman), who wants to keep the menu safe. In his personal life Carl is still on good terms with ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and tries to spend quality time with his 10 year old son Percy (Emjay Anthony). A scathing review by food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) triggers a social media war of words, and Carl loses his job.

He agrees to join Inez and Percy on a trip to Miami to recharge. The wealthy Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.), Inez's other ex-husband, agrees to bankroll Carl's venture into the food truck business, selling Cuban sandwiches. With the help of his friend and sous-chef Martin (John Leguizamo) and with Percy tagging along, Carl launches the food truck and embarks on a multi-city cross-country trip back to California.

When early career momentum stalls and early promise buzz evolves into middle age compromise, a fork in the road offers alternatives. Writer and director Favreau places his lead character at the decision point and allows him to flounder. With plenty of close-up shots of food being prepared (tantalizing or boring, depending on appetite and food porn tolerance), Chef is a mostly buoyant study of a career reset assisted by friends and family.

Despite the potentially weighty subject matter the film sidesteps excessive displays of dramatic emotion in favour of some comic highlights, mostly stemming from Carl bumbling into a career-ending social media storm. The film otherwise rides a comfortably fun vibe, the better-than-usual relationship between Carl and ex-wife Inez adding a welcome ray of hope that not all failed relationships need to end in acrimony.

The second half is essentially a food truck summer travelogue, Carl reconnecting with Percy as they establish the Cubano business driving from Miami back to Los Angeles. While a few conflict points spark between father and son, again Favreau steers Chef towards genial fare, Carl building a strong bond by passing on his love of cooking to Percy, while the ten year old takes charge of an effective online marketing campaign.

The high-powered but small supporting cast seems to be having a good time. Scarlett Johansson features in the first half as Carl's confidant and the hostess at Riva's restaurant, but then disappears. Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Platt get two scenes each, Robert Downey Jr. just one, and overall Favreau conveys a sense of buddies pulling together to create a small but pleasant movie on both sides of the camera. No doubt they all also enjoyed good food while on set.

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