If you want to see delicious food cooked up in a movie, then CHEF (2014), the new comedy drama by director/writer/actor Jon Favreau is the film for you. The mouth-watering dishes prepared in this flick made me want to toss my popcorn and run to the nearest five-star restaurant.
However, if you’re looking for a good story to sink your teeth into, then that’s a different matter, because the story CHEF tells is more like that bag of popcorn than a gourmet meal.
CHEF opened in theaters back on May 30, and I had intended to see it before now, but on my first trek to the theater several weeks back, some technical issues postponed the showing. I finally got around to seeing it this week.
CHEF tells the story of gourmet chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau). He’s the head chef at a popular restaurant, and his life at this restaurant is all good. He has complete control over what he cooks, or at least he thinks he does, he enjoys a fun friendship with his fellow cooks Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Cannavale), and he’s sleeping with the beautiful hostess, Molly (Scarlett Johansson). However, his life outside the restaurant is not so good. He’s divorced, his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) is rich and he isn’t, and since he’s so busy at the restaurant, he just doesn’t have a lot of time to spend with his ten year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony).
When influential food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) whose opinions can make or break an establishment visits the restaurant, Carl excitedly plans a special menu to impress the man. However, the restaurant’s owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) convinces Carl to stick with his regular menu, arguing that Carl’s food is good enough as is, and that the reason the restaurant is doing so well is because of the way Carl prepares the present menu. Carl agrees.
The results are not pretty, as Ramsey writes a negative review. Carl is devastated by the bad review, and he makes things worse when he sends what he believes to be a private message on Twitter to Ramsey which suddenly goes viral, and when Ramsey writes back with even harsher language, Carl finds himself in an online war of words that he is not prepared to handle.
Before he can say “tweet” Carl finds himself out of a job, and suddenly he’s soul searching as to what he’s going to do with his life. He settles upon the idea of running a food truck, and the rest of the film is a road trip movie, as Carl, his friend and fellow cook Martin, and his young son Percy drive the truck from Florida back to their home in California, with of course Carl using this time to bond with his son.
CHEF was written and directed by Jon Favreau, who also plays the lead role, Chef Carl Casper. The multi-talented Favreau is probably best known as the director of the first IRON MAN (2008) movie starring Robert Downey Jr., but he also directed another of my favorite movies, the classic Will Ferrell comedy ELF (2003). In addition, Favreau directed IRON MAN 2 (2010) and COWBOYS AND ALIENS (2011). Favreau also starred in all three IRON MAN movies as Tony Stark’s personal bodyguard Happy Hogan.
Favreau obviously has talent, and perhaps this is the reason that I expected more from CHEF.
On the strength of its supporting cast alone, it would be hard to dislike this film, as it features Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., and Oliver Platt in small roles, and all are very good in their limited screen time, especially Johansson. Had her character Molly been in this film more, CHEF would have been a better movie. Robert Downey Jr. looks like he rolled off the set of an IRON MAN movie, as he does his Tony Stark shtick here, playing the flamboyant wealthy ex-husband of Carl’s ex-wife who agrees to finance Carl’s new food truck.
CHEF gets off to a strong start. We’re treated to rousing scenes of food preparation, fast-paced cooking action in the kitchen, and energetic camaraderie amongst the chefs. Throw in Scarlet Johansson as your hostess, and this one is prepped for a fun beginning.
But the fun slows down when Carl loses his job because strangely at this point in the story the film loses its edge, settling for “happy” and “sweet” moments as opposed to funny ones. It also sugar coats its serious side, which had it been played up, had we felt more of Chef Carl’s pain when he was out of work, for instance, would have given this pleasing tale more balance. As it stands, it’s awfully syrupy sweet.
I also didn’t really like Carl all that much. He’s a nice enough guy, and later when he finally does bond with his son Percy he becomes a nice dad as well, but when things go sour with food critic Ramsey Michel he becomes something of a whiner. He goes on at length several times in the movie about how Michel’s words “hurt me” and he lambastes Ramsey saying that since he’s just a critic and not a chef, he has no idea what he’s talking about. These emotional tirades do not make Carl a likeable person. Instead, he comes off like a big baby who can’t handle criticism. I can’t say that I was nuts about Jon Favreau in this role.
There are also times when he’s gushing with happiness that just didn’t ring true for me. You just lost your job. You shouldn’t be this happy this fast. But he is.
Which brings me to another problem with CHEF, and that is, there’s too little conflict. Carl loses his job for all of two seconds before he’s up and running with his cool new food truck. Not only this, but the truck is an instant success and suddenly he’s more popular than ever.
I also didn’t like the character of Carl’s ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara). She is so supportive of her ex-husband, she seems more like his sister than his ex-wife. The two get along better than most married couples. There’s also something very condescending and annoying about the way she speaks to Carl. Worse yet, he doesn’t seem to notice.
On the contrary, young Emjay Anthony is excellent as Carl’s son Percy. He gives the best performance in the entire movie. Likewise, Jon Favreau’s best scenes in CHEF are the ones where he plays off Anthony. But since CHEF is an R rated comedy, I expected more than just a G rated tale about a 10 year-old boy. And it’s R rated for language, because as you would expect, the language in the bustling restaurant kitchen and later on inside the food truck is rather colorful.
Scarlet Johansson is also excellent as Molly, the hostess who’s involved in a relationship with Carl at the beginning of the movie. Sadly, her character completely disappears in the second half of the film, and the movie suffers for it.
Both Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Platt are solid in their supporting roles, and Robert Downey Jr. pleases in his one scene as Inez’ ex-husband Marvin, who could be Tony Stark’s long lost cousin.
John Leguizamo is okay as Carl’s buddy Martin, but he’s been better in other things, and Martin never becomes the hilarious buddy he’s intended to be. The same can be said for Bobby Cannavale as Tony.
But you can’t beat the scenes of cooking, food preparation, and gourmet meals. You’ll be drooling in your seat. The items prepared in this movie, even on the food truck, are mouthwatering. If only the entire movie had been the same.
That’s not to say that I didn’t like CHEF, because I did. For the most part, it entertained me, and in the lightest of fashions made me laugh, but unfortunately it also went to the “happy” well too many times for my liking. The bottom line is things should have been more difficult for Carl— he whines and complains about things, when really, in this movie, things are never so bad for him— and the movie should have been funnier.
CHEF is a light comedy that could have used more meat on its bones.
I feel like I got an appetizer when I wanted a meal.