Did you know that the director of Iron Man (and thus, semi-creator of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) also directed the modern Christmas-classic Elf? Did you also know that this same director (whose filmography also includes Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens) got his start by producing an independent dramatic film in the 90’s (Swingers)? Jon Favreau’s career is very eclectic and features some great blockbusters as well as some heart-felt indies.
With Favreau’s newest film, Chef, we see the director leave the realm of big-buget superhero films and return to a more passion-filled personal project. While the passion of food and the restaurant business is seen in full on effect in Chef, the entire film/filmmaking process of Chef is the passion for Favreau. After the less-than-stellar Coybows & Aliens, Chef is an extremely satisfying return to form for Favreau. The cast, the story, the energy, its all here and Chef is easily one of my favorites of the year.
Chef follows the story of Carl Casper, a chef who was once the bad boy of cooking and a pioneer of creativity. The film starts by showing Carl as the chef of a local Los Angeles restaurant, and while he is definitely still cooking and showing leadership, he is limited by the restaurant system. While other stories introduce the world/characters and then subsequently introduce conflict to the established world, Chef introduces us to the characters in the midst of conflict from the get go.
I was wondering if I should write about the conflict of the film, as that would usually fall into the realm of spoilers, but Chef is not so much about overcoming conflict. The movie starts in conflict and the story sees our character slowly changing because of the beginning circumstances. There are three main story threads in the film. The first is Carl’s desire for creativity while being limited by a traditional restaurant owner. The second is Carl’s relationship with his son (strained due to his recent divorce). The third story we follow is Carl’s relationship with a negative food critic (and critics in general).
All of these story threads make for a very satisfying film, Favreu (who also wrote the script) has crafted a very fun and heart-felt movie. The dialogue and relationships in the movie feel real and we enjoy spending time with these characters. There are tons of standout elements in the film, but the best in regards to characterization is the relationship between Carl and his son Percy (played by newcomer Emjay Anthony). The film’s non-traditional depiction of family is refreshing, and the father/son relationship is the film’s emotional core. Favreau is extremely successful in making us care for Carl and making us root for him in trying to connect with his son.
While the movie features heart-felt characters and witty dialogue, let’s not forget that this movie is entitled Chef. The film is a love-letter to food and the devotion that goes into making food. It’s one thing to watch someone make food and think, “that looks good” (i.e. something we see on Food Network). It’s another thing altogether to use strong filmmaking to make us swoon over the food we watch fictional characters craft. There is an impressive attention to detail in the film and it translates well to the audience. Make sure you either have food with you or you plan on eating afterwards when watching this movie, a viewing of Chef is not recommended if you are on a diet.
The film takes on a very interesting story when seen through the lens of Favreau’s career. Just like Carl’s rise and fall (and rise again) within the food industry, Favreau is a filmmaker with a similar arc. He started out making a strong independent film (Swingers, Made). After that he moved into successful studio pictures (Elf, Zathura, Iron Man), and that success is great, just because Carl was cooking for others doesn’t mean that the food wasn’t good. After initial commercial success though, both Carl and the real-life Favreau moved into familiarity and showed a lack of creative vision (Iron Man 2, Coyboys & Aliens). Chef is to Favreau as the food truck is to Carl. In the film’s food truck, Carl is his own boss, the kitchen “staff” is made up of his friends and family and he is making the food he wants to make. In Chef, Favreau is the Director/Writer/Star, the cast is made up of professional friends and Favreau is back to making a film he is 100% invested in and passionate about. The passion Favreau poured into the project is perfectly translated to the finished product, and the film shines because of the heart behind it.
If there is one word I could use to describe Chef, it would be earnest. The film goes all across the nation and you feel the reality that they filmed these scenes on location and successfully captured the spirit of the city they were in (whether it is Miami, Austin or Los Angeles). The film depicts a recovering family unit and while it is sad to see, the film is upbeat and shows their relationships in an inspiring matter. Lastly, just like the film’s main character, Chef is in love with food and has some of the best on-screen depiction of food I’ve seen.
The earnestness of Chef lends itself to the great inspirational content of the film. The tendency of independent film is that it is stereotypically more somber in the name of being “real.” What is most refreshing about Chef is just how happy it is. Because the film starts in a dark place, it can only go up from there. Favreau had to of had a smile on his face the whole time he was making the film. Just as Carl creates a successful food truck business, you feel as though Favreau is encouraging the audience to go after their dreams, take care of their families and be earnest through it all.
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