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Review: Chef (2014)

Chef (2014)

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Premise: A restaurant chef (Favreau) loses his job and is humiliated when an embarrassing video of his workplace meltdown goes viral on social media. He begins operating a food truck to rebuild his career and mend his relationship with his estranged son.

What Works: Filmmaker Jon Favreau got his start in movies like Swingers and Made in which he performed multiple tasks including actor, writer, and director. These movies were distinguished by snappy dialogue, sharp humor, and a playful but smart filmmaking style. In recent years he made the transition to big budget action movies like Iron Man and Cowboys & Aliens but Chef is a return to form for Favreau. It has many of the qualities that distinguished the filmmaker’s earlier movies but its characters and storytelling are tempered by a much more mature perspective. Chef tells the story of a man whose job has come between him and his family and whose creative ambitions have been thwarted by the commercial demands of his boss. This situation has a lot of reality to it and it’s an effective mid-life crisis premise. Jon Favreau plays the lead role very well. The character could be a typical workaholic movie dad but Favreau is such a likable actor that he inspires empathy from the audience and viewers will want to see him succeed and get his family and his career in order. Emjay Anthony plays his son and the young actor has an effective rapport with Favreau. Chef has a lot riding on the father-son relationship. Since the story doesn’t have much in the way of plot and conflict, the film’s success largely rests on the familial relationship and fortunately Favreau and Anthony are a likeable and watchable pair. John Leguizamo plays a friend who joins the father and son on their journey and Leguizamo is, as always, an effective comic presence. His role could disrupt the father-son journey but instead he enhances it, fulfilling a storytelling function by allowing Favreau and Anthony’s characters credible private time and injecting some humor. The cast also features Sofia Vergara as the ex-wife of Favreau’s character. Vergara isn’t in it very much but the performance is notable because she is so restrained. In most of her roles, especially the television program Modern Family, Vergara plays an obnoxious Hispanic stereotype but in Chef she proves herself capable of playing a dignified and recognizably human character. The central cast of Chef is likeable all around and that is the trait that ultimately defines this movie. It’s very pleasant to watch and the movie leaves the viewer feeling good about themselves and the world. 

What Doesn’t: The story of Chef is pretty thin. Once the trio of cooks are on the road, the film becomes a series of similar sequences in which they purchase, sell, and cook food in different cities but there isn’t much that happens to these people and the story gets repetitive. After an initial blow up during the renovation of the food truck, the father and son relationship is reconciled and they don’t face any other significant challenges on the road nor do they come to any tangible new understandings about each other or themselves. The very end of Chef includes a coda sequence in which the filmmakers suggest that the family will live happily ever after. There is nothing wrong with a happy ending but in this cases the finale is too optimistic. Because the titular character and his son never overcome a really significant challenge, the ending of the film is partially unearned and the reconciliation between husband and wife comes out of nowhere. Chef features Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. in small supporting roles that are really cameos. These actors, who had previously worked on Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies, play their parts well but the appearance of these movie stars in such small parts is distracting.

Bottom Line: Chef may be low on story but it’s high on character and fun. The movie is lightweight, no doubt about it, but it’s also charming and enjoyable, the kind of movie that’s rare in the summer movie marketplace.

Episode: #496 (June 22, 2014)