The term “food porn” for Chef is a apt description, and not just because it has a VAST amount of, well, prolonged “food porn” for the audience to sink their teeth into. Indeed, they fixate on food being prepared like Sex and the City does on shopping montages, but a movie lacking meaty content to accompany a gimmick is never filling – a risk Jon Favreau seems quite aware of, resulting in what is honestly a quite personal story.
Along with directing, Favreau stars as a once promising chef named Carl Casper, who is in what could be called an event-induced mid-life crisis – torn between adhering to his “by-popular-demand” boss Riva (Dustin Hoffman) and impressing critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). Something has to give, and after an inadvertent electronic mishap results in an airing of grievances, Casper is left to decide how to proceed next with his family and his attempts to reignite his passion for cooking.
Modern cinema often feels a need to rely on over-the-top plot devices to convey tension, but this film plays a more realistic hand. Hoffman isn’t made into a hateful villain for simply having well-ingrained business protocol, and critics aren’t seen as all-condemning curmudgeons. Carl’s interactions with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) express civility over who their son Percy would spend time with, and there is no cheap plot device to facilitate bonding when a mutual decision is made. It just seems like a nicely- and methodically-paced look at what it might honestly be like for a man to reassess his life and try a new career path.
However because of that singular path, complexity of plot is replaced with a focus on casual, day-to-day interactions. Luckily, an unusual emphasis on technology provides a unique twist, allowing a fun contrast of the lessons included in the plot (the father teaches about working a scalding grill, while the son teaches about the hazards of private messaging). In turn, having a basic story severely limits many actors’ time on screen, though they mostly do their jobs well. Vergara conveys the romantic side of what could be versus what likely is, but other actors (Scarlet Johannson, Robert Downey, Jr.) are barely onscreen long enough to be noticeable.
As a result, a surprising amount of importance is placed on Emjay Anthony playing a smart but slightly vulnerable Percy, and on John Leguizamo (as Casper’s friend Martin) displaying his propensity for bringing out eccentricities in a likable manner. Without their ability to convey people who just want to see the spark in their father and friend again, respectively, much of this movie would have failed. A
s for Jon Favreau playing Carl Casper… he’s spent many years playing comedic relief in films like Rudy and Iron Man, so it’s interesting to see him take on such a subtle and nuanced character. It’s clear he still thrives more in scenes involving dynamic character interaction, but he seems to be bringing a certain weight to his scenes – making it not surprising at all that this is a passion project of his. His writing is very well laid out, and clearly he trusts his actors to bring out their scenes (and his special effects team to effectively integrate various computerised programs into his visual presentation). I’m not sure yet if he’s got the acting chops to play the lead in a make-or-break role, but it’ll be interesting to see him try dramatic performances more often.
The ending does feel rushed and could have used better execution, a sad final course for an otherwise carefully laid series of entrees. And indeed, it serves as a warning to not let prolonged visuals (of grilled cheese) interfere with overall presentation. Though this film doesn’t show any powerful flavour, maybe that’s the appeal. It knows the sort of gently-filling experience it is supposed to provide, and (for the most part) sticks to that basic recipe. There’s something to be said about a simple product presented in a homely manner. It’s just a shame that the after dinner mint leaves a slightly odd taste in the mouth.