How many of you knew Jon Favreau before he directed the first two “Iron Man” movies? He was a pretty good yet unheard-of comedic actor. I think it is kind of funny that he appeared in “Daredevil” in 2003 before he directed “Iron Man” in 2008. Before any superhero antics, he starred in films like “Rudy,” “Swingers” and “Very Bad Things,” those might have been sleeper hits in the 1990’s but hits nonetheless. He would also star in other films such as “Something’s Gotta Give” and “The Break-Up.” He began directing and writing scripts as early as 2001. He’s a very talented guy, who finally seems to be getting traction thanks to Marvel Studios. In 2014, I think we have seen his very best work so far behind and in front of the camera. I am talking about his new film “Chef.”
I love food; there are no two ways about it. My parents were always in the kitchen doing something, whether it was cooking or baking and my love for food began young. My favorite is definitely Italian, but I love temporary American, Chinese, sushi, etc. A chocolate bar wrapped in bacon? I’ll probably love it. I am not big on dressings and I am not big on fish, but other than that, I’ll pretty much give anything a try. I taught myself how to cook my junior year of college once a couple buddies and I got a house for our last two years. A couple of years ago, my girlfriend and I became fascinated by “The Great Food Truck Race” on the Food channel. Some of my earliest jobs were in restaurants, so there really are no two ways about it, I love food. So a dramatic-comedy about food starring Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt and Robert Downey Jr. would definitely catch my attention.
But “Chef” is more than that. “Chef” is a movie about relationships and it is also a movie about taking the time to do something for ourselves. It might be a tired and strange theme for a movie about food, but if you don’t love yourself, how can you ever love what you do? Carl Casper (Favreau) lives a bittersweet life when we meet him. He is an overly-talented chef and he works at a place that allowed him to build his own nest, and that has given him many good friendships. On the flip-side, Casper is divorced and he does not pay enough attention to his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony) because of his tiresome work schedule. As the film opens, we see him preparing for an important night, as the most important food-blogger, Ramsey Michael (Platt) is coming to critique his restaurant. Casper wants to prepare a special menu for Michael, while the restaurant’s owner (Hoffman) wants him to stick to the basic menu. Casper sticks to the basic menu and Michael gives the restaurant two stars, followed by a harsh review where he takes a couple personal stabs at Casper.
This ignites a back-and-forth Twitter battle between Casper and Michael, which results in Casper losing his job. Having seemingly no other option, Casper takes advice from his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) and visits Inez’s ex-husband (Downey Jr.) and buys a food truck. Inez allows their son to accompany Casper on his food truck adventure from Miami to Los Angeles, visiting several cities on the way back home. This also allows Casper’s estranged relationship with his son flourish into something that has real meaning.
Like I said, this is astounding work from Favreau, easily the best movie of his career. From an acting stand-point, it is completely unlike anything he has ever done before. Favreau has played sad schmucks before, but he’s never been this wounded, he’s never been this frazzled before and he’s never had this much to do onscreen before. I might go as far to say that this performance is Oscar worthy, and in a perfect world, Faveau would be nominated for best Lead Actor this winter. Fingers crossed that it happens. From a directing and writing stand-point, this is among Favreau’s best. This is some fun and witty dialogue he has dreamed up for his script and he seems to have a knack for picking great actors and giving them characters they can shine with. That is not a talent every director has, but Favreau sure does.
The rest of the cast is equally solid and I absolutely love that there are so many characters to like and identify with. Jon Favreau and Sofia Vergara maybe the most unlikely couple in the history of modern cinema, but they foster a believable relationship that feels human, not artificial or made-for-a-movie. I have liked Cannavale and Leguizamo for a very long time and once again, neither of them disappoint. Johansson has a small role in this film, but she makes it count. It seems that the year 2014 will be the year we finally figured out what to do with Johansson and that is pretty awesome. Platt plays his typical snarky, uptight twit, but he has mastered it and he does it well. As for Hoffman and Downey Jr., they are their typical awesome selves, just as I expected they would be.
The glue to the entire film is the relationship between Emjay Anthony’s Percy and Favreau’s Casper. I have never experienced a divorce, nor do I really know anybody who ever lived through one, so I can only imagine the effects such a thing has on a family. I think Emjay Anthony is a unique talent and I hope he has a long-lasting career ahead of him. He plays all of his character’s emotions just right and he makes a big splash as an actor. Anthony and Favreau possess striking chemistry onscreen, and it feels like they have known each other for a long time. It is great character work and it seems Favreau has a keen eye on young actors, something that is very rare to come by.
This summer may not have been the summer we hope for when it comes to movies, and it certainly was not the summer the blockbuster trailers promise. But as far as indie fare goes, it has been a really strong summer. “Chef” works as a comedy, it works as a film about how we process and evolve in a relationship and it is a self-actualization story worth telling. We have seen the very best Favreau can conjure as an artist; now let’s hope he can top himself.
Oh, and can somebody over at Marvel find roles for Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo? Because that would be perfect!
FINAL GRADE: A