Ladies and gentlemen, I watch a lot of movies and I try to be blunt and brutal in my critique. Jon Favreau’s latest, CHEF, was a masterpiece and the finest slice of cinema I have digested in 2014. The movie season is starting to find its legs so there will be more and the last month has produced some fine films, but CHEF was something else. A special blend of comedy, food lovers delight, old school storytelling, great acting and crackling sharp dialogue. Here is my review.
Running Time-115 minutes
Written and Directed by Jon Favreau
Cast-Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johnansson, Dustin Hoffman, Emjay Anthony, Oliver Platt and Robert Downey Jr.
Plot-When Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) suddenly quits his job at a prominent Los Angeles restaurant after refusing to compromise his creative integrity for its controlling owner (Dustin Hoffman), he is left to figure out what’s next. Finding himself in Miami, he teams up with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), his friend (John Leguizamo) and his son to launch a food truck. Taking to the road, Chef Carl goes back to his roots to reignite his passion for the kitchen — and zest for life and love.
Buffa’s Take-Great food can make a fine palate for heartfelt filmmaking, and Jon Favreau has created a masterpiece here with his latest, Chef. The title of the film is as simple as it gets and when cooking is done right, master chef’s stick to the basics and go where their heart takes them. Favreau sticks to genuine funny character interaction, a juicy script, great ensemble acting and a sure handed direction. Chef is easily the best film I have seen in 2014 and one of those films you simply want to root for and push into the street and urge people to be a part of.
The opening of the film hooks you instantly, with Favreau’s long time “El Jefe” Carl Casper slicing through veggies, fish and assorted fruits as he preps his kitchen for a day of service. Favreau must have gone to culinary school because the man’s love for food here is no act and is invested with something personal and romantic. The best cooks love their food as much as they appreciate the next gasp of oxygen and we get that right away with this guy. Casper is a lion in a growing world, and wants to open his creative recipes up on the high end Los Angeles customers at his restaurant, but the owner (a signature stern and blunt Hoffman) wants him to stick to his old boring menu of classical dishes. Casper wants to spice it up, and when his restrictions lead to a legendary food blogger trashing his food, the chef’s life crumbles. He finds his mojo again in a food truck and that’s when the film takes off.
The food indeed plays a supporting role, but Favreau wisely integrates the rapid growth of social networking into the film’s story. Twitter plays a huge role in Casper’s collapse and his ability to rise up. As a writer who hinges his work and interaction on the social media site, it’s great to see a filmmaker putting it front and center and taking his moviegoers to school on how powerful the underground media and social party hound site has become. Tweets are shown above the characters like Archie comics as they type away and it’s not a gimmick. Favreau is telling you how it is but doing it with classy appeal and wise comedy so the story of redemption never seems too far away.
The film never gets too heavy and keeps the engine moving but the scenes between Casper and his son, Percy(a sharp newcomer in Anthony) bring an equal dose of emotion and suave confidence. A father teaching his son not only the ropes of cooking but the high appointed tasks of making a living and doing something you love. The two actors are better than two performers showing chemistry. They convince us that in some far off land they could be embody these two desperate souls.
This is the kind of film where a filmmaker is showing a piece of himself through the usage of their art. Without forcing it on us, Favreau is showing us that if you are going to push something, it has to be something you would die for. He is a man of his word with this movie. He wrote, directed, and starred in this film jointly produced by Open Road, a production company that takes leaps and bounds with their versatile resume of film genres. At its peak, Chef is a brilliant comedy with a small dashing of drama and a culinary roller coaster for anyone who truly treasures food.
When I say the food plays a supporting role here, I am not lying. You won’t look at the grilled cheese you make as tolerable every again. The food truck makes stops in Miami(Cuban sandwich), New Orleans(craw fish and crab), and Texas(deep smoked barbecue). Steaks, pastas, sweet pastries and fries get a spotlight here as well as many other delectable foods. The cooking isn’t a plot device. It’s a full blooded role player in this film. Chef has the calm and presence to slow down and show the cooking scenes in their entirety. Cooks, critics and food lovers will adore this film because it takes its central character, a kitchen, very seriously.
The entire cast is excellent. Favreau has never been better, and gets back to his early roots of Swingers style madness here by putting a hard charging yet reality biting script at the head of the table where every actor can get a full bite. Leguizamo hits comic gold as Casper’s partner in crime, with Bobby Cannavale turning in his usual solid chameleon work. Platt and Johansson are given a few scenes yet make them count, especially Scarlett (Favs’ Iron Man buddy) who keeps getting better with every film she does. Talk about beauty and command in one full bodied woman.
Sofia Vergara is an appealing presence and has an old school movie appeal going for her in every project she is in. At first, you don’t see the magic between her and Favreau but it’s apparent by the next scene. Downey Jr. offers his effortlessly cool presence and has a hilarious string of dialogue with Favreau that rolls off naturally like two chums in a school yard.
This cast was handpicked by the writer/director/star and it shows. Actors wanted to be a part of this film and didn’t simply cash a paycheck. There’s real work going on here.
I really hope the Academy doesn’t forget about this film. That may sound surprising to some going into the film but I am as honest as a sharpened blade here. Favreau’s tale has a big heart, a killer soundtrack (including a cameo by the great blues artist Gary Clark Jr.) and a quick witted brain. When you leave, there’s going to be a smile on your face and a need to stop and think about what you just saw. You may also need to hit the market and collect some food for a few nights at home cooking.
I hear quite a few clapping sessions at screenings I attend. As a critic, you get used to it and sometimes roll your eyes as it happens. When the credits rolled on Chef, the clapping seemed sincere, like the crowd had seen something marvelous. I didn’t feel any hesitation joining the celebration of a movie that makes me forget about the problems that plague our every day life for two wonderful hours. Feel free to escape here folks.
Chef is a first class meal with a little something for everyone, but like any great dish, it never forgets about the most important ingredient and that’s flavor.
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