Editor’s note: Our review of Chef originally ran during this year’s SXSW film festival, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in theaters.
During his introduction of his new movie Chef on opening night of the SXSW Film Festival, Jon Favreau talked at length about how nice it was to be able to make a movie that is personal, to be inspired to make something that didn’t have to appeal to every demographic, as is the requirement placed upon so many blockbusters. He talked about being so inspired in a way that he hadn’t seen since Swingers. This got some applause, for sure, from an audience anxious to see him bring that kind of film. Because when he said that it was nice to make a movie that would appeal to a smaller, more passionate audience, it was almost as if he had made it for that particular audience. It is a movie about good food and music with a cameo from Austin’s favorite city (Austin), after all.
The only problem is that with the sweetness with which Favreau has imbued his latest movie comes a bit of bitterness toward online critics, an aged view of social media and the Internet and a movie that comes away from the wreck of its conflict too clean for its own good. All things that, if they weren’t so drunk on BBQ, wouldn’t get by such an audience.
The sweetness is delivered by the core story, that of Chef Carl (Favreau) and his fall from grace. We meet him the day he’s supposed to be reviewed by a well-respected food blogger. Under pressure from his traditionalist boss (Dustin Hoffman), he passes up an opportunity to try a new menu and cooks the same stuff he’s been cooking for 10 years. The result is a spiral of getting slammed, discovering Twitter, starting a Tweet-fight with the critic, becoming a YouTube sensation (in a bad way) and ending up former-Chef Carl. What’s a guy to do? So he sets off to rediscover his roots, reconnect with a son (Emjay Anthony) he’s been ignoring, his energetic best friend (John Leguizamo) and a plan B of opening up a food truck.
All of the father and son stuff is where Chef really leaves its mark. Even though he’s not as dynamic an actor as he is a writer and director, Favreau makes Chef Carl a believably bad, yet misunderstood guy. His chemistry with young Emjay Anthony is great, making the story of an estranged father and son reconnecting over a Griddler the part that makes us want to keep watching. Other than all of the delicious cooking money shots, that is.
Where it gets weird is in the way that Favreau incorporates a number of subplots that range from the perplexing to the outright useless. The first of which is the film’s obsession with “online critics” and how they are hurtful people. It feels a lot like Favreau, who took a beating online for Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, wanted to exercise some personal demons by pointing out (emphatically) that Chef Carl’s nemesis was a “food blogger.” The problem with the result is that these are people who still adore Favreau’s work. It feels like wasted energy — a lot of wasted energy.
Also central to the story’s movement is Twitter, Vine, Facebook and the world of social media. Through the eyes of its main character, the film treats much of this world with the “Aw shucks, gee-wiz” level of novelty that we’d have expected from movies 5-years ago. Chef Carl doesn’t understand that Tweets are out in the public, sure. But did we need them to have a several-minute long conversation about “What is a Vine?” during their road trip. Driving a food truck from Miami to Los Angeles may be boring in reality, but its cinematic version shouldn’t have to be for the audience.
Yet as distracting as these two elements may be, Chef still has plenty of charm and is mostly a very enjoyable experience. John Leguizamo adds some colorful moments and the rest of the cast — including Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, and Robert Downey Jr. — turn in their usual brand of excellence. There’s a lot of fun to be had on the road to redemption, including a stop in Austin and a cameo from the king of BBQ, Aaron Franklin. And even though the film very quickly and cleanly wraps up the story with very little blood spilt, it’s easy to see why Favreau was so happy making this one as opposed to another big studio movie. It’s an extension of that sense of humor we fell in love with over Swingers and Made, but matured and focused into a story of life’s challenges and what it takes to create soulful food and music. It’s incredibly sweet, but still perplexing with its dashes of bitter.
The Upside: A great cast, a solid core and a delicious onslaught of food porn.
The Downside: Jon Favreau needs to treat the internet like it’s no longer new and hopefully move past whatever anger he’s got toward online critics.
On the Side: The film’s chef consultant was Chef Roy Choi, owner of the famous truck Kogi, who said in Q&A after the movie that he was proud that this movie was able to get what happens in the kitchen right, where other movies often fail.