Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman
Though many dismissed it as nothing more than an exercise in American excess, Adam Richman’s culinary travels in Man v. Food hungrily highlighted just how rich and diverse stateside cuisine can be thanks to a fusion of cultures. It’s a belief that Jon Favreau clearly shared while whipping up his return to the indie cinema scene he took by storm with Swingers back in 96. Chef may not ever manage to produce a story smart enough to make your mind rumble, but it’s fused with enough gastronomic passion and vigor to make your stomach do so.
The eponymous cook is Carl Casper, a critically acclaimed chef whose career and domestic situation both seem to be crumbling around him. His relationship with young son Percy is weaker than the one he shares with estranged wife Inez, while his professional reputation is suffering thanks to a particularly scathing review and a lack of creative freedom. However, the opportunity to manage a food truck gives Carl the chance to reignite his enthusiasm for cookery and piece together his familial situation.
During the film’s production, Favreau – who writes, directs & stars as Casper – went and worked with food truck chef Roy Choi, who helped the director realise his own enthusiasm for the craft. At its core Chef is about the power food has on people. How it can comfort us when we’re down, or energise us when we’re inspired and from the first epicurean shot to the last, it is something that is treated with both passion and respect. Favreau’s approach is commendable, consistently treating cookery as an art form and revelling in both the intricate and simple methods used to create fantastic flavours.
The problem though, is that all the time spent focused on the film’s subject matter seems to have distracted Favreau when it came to writing the script. The narrative is certainly ripe with ideas about reawakening one’s passion, but it’s stirred into an over seasoned plot that’s constantly in danger of boiling over. Heavy-handed observations on the far-reaching power of social networking are blended with a frustrating overreliance on a subplot involving Carl’s desire to reconnect with his family. Though it is all performed with vigour by a confident cast, the film rarely succeeds in capitalising on their quality and only ever truly comes to life when Carl fires up the hob.
Once we travel to Miami however, the film becomes infused with a vital burst of vitality. Favreau casts a fascinated eye over America’s different areas of culinary culture and immerses both himself and the audience within the adrenaline-fuelled rush of the catering industry. John Leguizamo’s energetic performance and Kramer Morgenthau’s lush cinematography further enhances the tone, with the fiery Latin soundtrack channelling the vibrancy of Carl and his son’s different gastronomic experiences.
Sadly though, the liveliness of that second half never manages to undo the sluggishness of the first. When driven by Favreau’s hypnotic spirit towards the artistry of gastronomy though, Chef certainly manages to fill a hole.