Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is one of those professionals whose home life is less than stellar thanks to his dedication to his field. He’s separated from his wife, Inez (Sofía Vergara), doesn’t spend a whole lot of time with his son (Emjay Anthony), and otherwise has no personal life to speak of. He’s a chef. He has dedicated his entire life to his job, and while some might call that admirable, the film doesn’t paint it as such. He’s neglectful of his family, even if he’s successful in his profession.
Well, he begins the film as a success. We watch him prepare for a night which will see renowned food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) visit the restaurant at which Carl works — owned by a cameoing Dustin Hoffman, by the way. The dinner doesn’t go well, Carl winds up having a mental breakdown that’s caught on multiple cell phone cameras, and he soon finds himself without a job. Attentive viewers will have noticed how Inez suggested earlier that getting a food truck might be a good career choice. Even smarter viewers will see exactly where this film is going to go.
A food truck, a cross-country trip, and a lot of bonding between father and son is where Chef is heading. It’s predictable from start to finish. You can see exactly what turn it’s going to take each time and every time there’s a logical or an easy solution that the film can take, that’s what happens. This is a feel-good comedy, after all. It’s kind of hard to break new ground, isn’t it? But, hey, if it’s going to put smiles on faces, that’s really all that matters.
And if you decide to watch Chef, you’re probably going to have a good enough time. It’s sweet. It’s moderately funny. It doesn’t have a lot of dramatic weight or go down dark paths. It’s the comfort food of the film industry. Empty calories that make you feel a little better afterward. And, in this case, a lot of calories, given its 114-minute running time, which was about 25 minutes too long. Sorry. The food analogy was easy and cheap, and I’m sure everyone else is going to do something similar. Bite me. (Ha. It’s another food reference. ‘Cause you bite food to eat it. Get it? Ha. It’s funny.)
Fine. Here’s something more creative. I don’t think the film is, specifically, about being a chef. Jon Favreau is the director as well as the lead, and given the direction his character takes, it seemed more like the film was an allegory for his directorial career. He starts off successful, eventually gets told what to make, gets tired of that, and then does his own thing after some soul searching. Is that reaching? Wait until you see the scene in which his character reads the food critic’s review, and then think about how that review could have been changed only slightly from a review of Cowboys & Aliens.
Of course, the film also works when it’s thought of as just being about this chef character, in large part because of how authentic it all seems. You can tell that Favreau and his filmmaking crew did a ton of research when it comes to what a chef’s life looks like, how kitchens are run, and so on. The whole thing feels genuine, even if you ignore who the film is (probably) really about.
Part of that authenticity comes from the film’s language. Even though one of the primary characters is a child, and the premise screams PG-13, Chef is rated R. It can do this because it’s not a big-budget film like the last three of Favreau’s works. And it benefits the project because it does make it seem more realistic. You don’t see many high-pressure kitchens in which the phrase “oh, darn” is thrown around. I hope.
Chef‘s primary problem is its length, and how many of the high-profile actors who appear show up for a distracting cameo and then leave. At 114 minutes, Chef does run too long, and contains a few too many filler scenes — ones which exist to make us laugh (and often fail) and don’t advance the plot or characters. They just expand the running time. And the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey, Jr. Amy Sedaris, and Russell Peters all show up for one or two scenes and then are gone. It’s neat to see them, but it’s ultimately more distracting than beneficial.
For the main cast, though, we’ve got: Favreau in the lead, who is really solid; Emjay Anthony, who is a better kid actor than most (although still not good); John Leguizamo, who plays Favreau’s best friend and accompanies the aforementioned duo on the road trip; Scarlett Johansson, as eye candy and someone who disappears after the first third of the film; Bobby Cannavale, as Favreau’s sous-chef; and Sofía Vergara, as a helpful person who seems to pity Favreau’s character more than she dislikes him. If you smell marriage reconciliation right off the bat … you might be me, but I won’t tell you if you’re correct.
Chef is an easy-to-digest film, even if it’s too long and filled with distracting cameos. It’s still funny, it’s still sweet, and it feels real. And, if you know about Jon Favreau’s career, you might be able to read more into the text than those who do not. Chef is a good film, and if you watch it you will likely walk away from it with a smile — and a desire to eat something ASAP. Don’t watch Chef on an empty stomach.