Mick LaSalle reviews Chef

May 23, 2014

Grade: 90
Cast: Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Robert Downey Jr., Amy Sedaris
Director: Jon Favreau
Rated: R, for language
Running time: 115 minutes

By Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle

Chef is about the artist’s life. The fact that the artist in this case is a first-class cook makes his creations more accessible and visual than if he were, say, writing novels or composing music. But the main features and challenges of the artist’s existence are here: the strains on family, the temptations of security, the fear of critics and the need, every so often, to forget everything else and just fall in love with the work again.

This is the third feature film written and directed by Jon Favreau, who vaulted to fame with Swingers (1996) and followed that with Made (2001), another superior comedy. In recent years, Favreau has concentrated mainly on directing other people’s screenplays, including Iron Man and Iron Man 2. But Chef is the best thing he has ever done, as writer , director or actor. It’s the sort of thing of beauty that filmmakers are ultimately remembered for.

MV5BMTY5NTYzNTA1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODIwODU1MTE@._V1_SY317_CR1,0,214,317_AL_It’s 115 minutes long, and while the time goes quickly, the movie feels richer than its length, as though someone’s whole life were being experienced and illuminated.

It’s an American film with a languorous European flavor — full of colorful incidents, as in a Hollywood movie, but seemingly just floating along, not heading toward some fixed point.

With most American movies, you know exactly where they’re going within 20 minutes and even know how they’re getting there. But two-thirds of the way into Chef, the movie is still revealing itself and presenting surprises, not earthshaking turns of story, but rich little moments between people.

Favreau knows how to write scenes that stand out, and so he is able to get top actors to take small roles. Robert Downey Jr. appears in only one scene. Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Platt each appear in two, and Scarlett Johansson in three but their scenes are vivid and key to the story. Had unknowns taken those same roles, people would still walk out talking about those moments, among others.

Favreau plays Carl, a chef who started 10 years ago as a young up-and-comer and has now fallen into a groove of fried scallops and lava cake. (Actually, the less adventurous food here looks just as delicious as the more authentic food.) At the start of the movie, he is preparing for that night’s visit by the area’s most important restaurant critic (Platt), but the restaurant owner (Hoffman) won’t let Carl try something challenging. He wants Carl to play his hits.

From the movie’s first moments, Favreau lets us know that Carl’s commitment is profound, he’s a great chef and it would be a privilege to eat anything he cooked. At the same time, we recognize that he is going through a crisis, personal and professional. Later, when it’s all over, we can see the pathway out of the fog, but in the midst of it, we just share in the character’s dilemma — that he’s getting older, no longer the hot new thing, has no money and is ignoring his 10-year-old son and feels guilty about it.

Kids in movies are usually borderline evil and parent-child relationships are usually poisonous, even when sentimentalized, but Chef, for all its other virtues, is an honest and positive movie about a father and son. Favreau and young Emjay Anthony interact so naturally and convincingly that I gradually started wondering whether Favreau had cast his own kid. But no, they’re just acting.

Sofia Vergara, who plays Carl’s ex-wife, is directed away from her usual exuberance and gives her warmest performance to date.

Social media — mainly Twitter — has a recurring presence in Chef: Every time Carl tweets something he shouldn’t, a little blue graphic goes twittering across the frame, out of the cage and off to do merry mischief.

Throughout, the movie benefits from Favreau’s distinct sense of humor, which mixes playfulness with dread and embarrassment.

To look at Carl’s story and the trajectory of Favreau’s career is to wonder whether their stories overlap, and where. For example, does Favreau look back on the Iron Man movies with pride, or were they just lava cakes, served up for a payday? Either way, and no matter how you slice it, Chef is authentic cuisine.

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