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After Julie & Julia of five years ago, I can't think of another 'foodie' movie that's caught my eye. Not being a devoteé of TV cooking shows or the gourmet culture in general I wasn't all that eager to jump into Jon Favreau's Chef, a great little picture that slipped in this spring, entertained a lot of audiences and is just now appearing on video disc. In magazine articles high-class chefs often come off as terribly self-obsessed and conceited. This show humanizes the restaurant life in a way that will have one rooting for the honest cook next door, even if he lives in Brentwood and hangs around with unearthly visions like Scarlett Johansson and Sofía Vergara. Except for a light sprinkling of crude language throughout, Chef is a great family movie. I can see conservatives catching it as an in-flight movie and then rushing it home to show the wife and kids. The movie is so charming that I doubt they'd mind.
Frankly, Chef also feels like a 'family' movie simply for its affectionate nature... it convinces us that writer-director-star Jon Favreau is closely attached to his entire cast. Top names Johansson and Downey Jr. certainly don't need to take supporting roles these days, so we feel some non-Hollywood human warmth coming through the picture. Favreau seems like a great guy all around, and if it's not so, don't tell me.
Former superstar chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) knows that the merciless critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) will trash the same-old same-old menu that the restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) makes him cook. When Michel's review does indeed slam both the food and the chef, Casper shoots Michel a hostile tweet, thinking it's a private communication. Instead, their tiff is followed by thousands of foodie fans. Carl invites Michel for a second go but when Riva again won't let him change the menu, Carl quits. One public confrontation later, Carl is unemployable -- embarrassing videos of his outburst become the Internet joke of the week. On the pretext that Carl should spend more time with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), ex-wife Inéz (Sofía Vergara) gets Carl to accompany them to Miami. The stubborn Carl has resisted Inéz's career and public image advice, but the desire to keep working makes him consider a plan he's previously rejected -- running a food truck.
Perhaps being a producer of fabulously successful major films has something to do with this film's tone, because Jon Favreau's Chef is a stress-free, relaxing experience. The average movie about a guy losing his job is an ordeal, and considering today's unemployment figures a commercial gamble as well. Favreau seems so open with himself (his weight, for instance) and in control of his ego that we're on his side from the start. His Carl Casper is frustrated in his job even though he's a star chef. He's apparently lost his dream wife Inéz because of an affair with Molly, the restaurant's receptionist (Scarlett Johansson). Molly has moved on as well, and the easygoing Carl has made his peace with both of them. What remains is his love of cooking, the loyalty of friends like his cooking assistant Martin (John Leguizamo), and his desire to find approval in the eyes of his precocious and needy son, Percy.
Chef is clearly inspired by the craze for upscale food trucks. It reminds me a bit of Mike Leigh's great movie, Life is Sweet. Both are family stories about unhappy chefs who consider operating food trucks, but there the comparison ends. Inéz's suggestion of a food truck initially seems like a terrible step down for Carl. But the magical ingredients are all present (and all connected to his ex-wife). Inéz's first ex-husband Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) has the food truck to sell. Her Cuban musician father (Jose C. Hernandez) reminds Carl of how great Cuban food is, especially the Cuban Sandwich, a delicious treat that isn't that well known outside the Cuban community. Pal Martin has the Spanish skills to break the language barrier for Carl. Most surprisingly, young Percy's knowledge of social networking spins Carl's Internet notoriety into a steady flow of customers.
Favreau's story celebrates the happiness of finding a trade with which one can identify. Carl's commitment to cooking comes with its own Hippocratic Oath, which says that one does not serve customers anything less than one's best. The film's father-son story soars when Percy becomes eager to learn Carl's values, which right there makes Chef a family-film success. How many movies do we see in which bonding of this sort is an insincere sidebar issue?
Chef also negates questions of money. Carl Casper has done very well for himself, even if his wife now has possession of his expensive Brentwood house. But we can see that being a chef is demanding, hard work, and despite Inéz's, elegance it's likely that the daughter of an immigrant musician is not from a posh background. In other words, nobody's taking wealth for granted. Inéz's reaction to Carl's unemployment is not to ask for her child support but to remind him that he needs to be his own boss. Opening his own chi-chi restaurant is not within reach, but there are alternatives. Carl is fortunate to have friends and lovers that offer support.
Director Favreau communicates all these ideas and more, within a continually engaging comedy drama. John Leguizamo's Martin is a rather individualized 'sidekick' in that he has his own opinions and irreverent attitude -- his first reaction to learning about the food truck is to pass on the joke to his new chef (Bobby Cannavale). The screenplay doesn't soft-pedal the way personal ambition operates in the workplace -- Carl's underlings are buddy-buddy in person but naturally think of themselves first. Martin believes that Carl is still a winner, which is part of the reason he happily tags along. The other is that he honestly loves the guy. All of the relationships in Chef are like that.
The movie gives us an inside look at restaurant kitchens and the mindset of the chefs and their staff. Jon Favreau makes a big deal of his chef-advisor Roi Choi, and even puts him in a post-credits sequence. We see details of food prep throughout the picture, often framed as close-ups of Favreau's tattooed hands. I initially thought, "Oh, they've done the same tattoo makeup job on a real chef's fingers for the close-ups," but it isn't long before we're sure that Favreaux is the one cutting vegetables and dicing onions in record time. Chef lavishes almost as much attention on the food as it does the stars, whether we're looking at a swank concoction to impress a food critic or a slab of Texas barbecue beef coming out of an industrial oven. It's not easy to get food to look good on film, either. 1
It's interesting that social networking torpedoes Carl Casper, and then helps him bounce back in record time... in a credible way. It's also believable that Carl bounces back in such a humble fashion. His profession can be performed in a lowly food truck, and still be respected. 2 Showing Inéz risking her fingernails working on the truck is a marvelous way to demonstrate that she still believes in her ex. The key advertising image for Chef (seen above on the Blu-ray box) is a perfect character collage showing Martin, Percy, Carl and Inéz all hard at work and having a good time. I was surprised to realize that it is a clever Photoshop job. 3
As I said above, the actors in Chef come off more as Favreau's friends than stars for hire. Several are associated with movies he's worked on while old pro Dustin Hoffman scores perfectly as the one character we're not likely to remember with fondness. As it is, we learn just enough about some of them to make us want to know more. I can imagine the initial 'foodie' audience showing up for this, and quickly spreading the word to their friends.
Universal's Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD presentation of Chef is the expected glowing presentation of this colorful and lively picture. The location cinematography in Florida, New Orleans, Texas and Los Angeles doesn't hurt either. I see a digital intermediate listed on the credits so I assume the show was shot on film, although some of the camera mounts mentioned by Mr. Favreau in the commentary make us think that video cameras might have also seen use (?). Although the film has no original composer the audio track has some of the best Cuban-flavored music heard on a movie in years... I guess I'll want to track down the soundtrack album.
The keep case contains both Blu and DVD discs plus instructions and a code to pull the Digital Version down from the Intergalactic Cloud. Universal's extras are just what people want to see. A long list of deleted scenes adds the usual expendable material but also a couple of choice bits, including one with actress Amy Sedaris as Inéz's well-intentioned publicist, Jen. The audio commentary has a very nice idea -- instead of going solo or choosing the most marketable of his actors, Favreau shares his track with co-producer/cooking consultant Roy Choi. Fans intrigued by the film's cooking -- everybody seems interested in the secrets of chefs -- will encounter just the track they want to hear. The one minor reservation I have about Universal's disc is that the first thing up is a trailer for Eli Roth's latest theatrical horror gorefest. Yes, the foodie and light comedy audience for Chef really wants to see that.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. For several years in the 1980s I was an assistant editor on commercials for Denny's, the old ads with narration by the late 'Mister Mellow' Andrew Duggan. The expert that filmed the food close-ups did nothing else but tabletop work. He used a small Arriflex on a special boom to cruise over plates at a height of only several inches. He also had a fast wide-angle lens with a razor-sharp deep focus, the kind of 'hero' lens that cinematographers know, trust, and consider irreplaceable. The food looked good because they used filtered lights to play to the color sensitivity of the particular film stock being used. To the eye, the food sometimes had unappetizing colors. Cooks had scores of identical plates prepared, dressed and optimized, ready to be shot one after another, until they got it right. Finally, cards everywhere warned production people and looky-loos like myself to not touch the food under any circumstances. To simulate steam and 'flavor' wisping up from the plates, various deadly chemicals might be used.
I wonder if Chef employed similar specialists for food prep and serving shots. Or has cinematography advanced to the point that the camera sees exactly what we see, making all the hoo-haw artifice unnecessary?
2. The movie is very instructive (at least to me) about social networking. As plenty of people have found out, unless one really understands exactly where one's posts and instant remarks are going and who can read them, social networking can be a social self-destruct device. Had Carl's public outburst happened before the advent of cell phones, before every person in a room became a self-contained vérité TV studio, the backlash of Carl's outburst would have been limited to word of mouth from eyewitnesses, without audiovisual enhancement. But the Internet creates an entire new dynamic, which flows both ways.
Had Carl kept his fury to himself, the food critic's denunciation would have been the last word on the matter, with the result that he'd probably be demoted to a lower grade of restaurant. As it is, by becoming a media 'item', he expanded the number of his fans, many of which don't like the critic and will rally behind a workingman who voices their own frustrations with their workplace. This 'fame' makes it possible for Percy's web-casts to attract a cult following for Carl's food truck. People want to sample the 'crazy' chef's food, and have their picture taken with him. In other words, going ballistic can have a big upside.
Today, making a damn fool of one's self in public can improve one's future, a fact well known by any celebrity created through publicity instead of real accomplishments. Let's hear it for Joe The Plumber. Of course, Carl is a great cook who will win over hecklers the moment they taste his food -- good eats speak louder than words. Good men with marketable skills that can be judged by all can always bounce back. Carl doesn't have all the puzzle pieces, but can get by with a little help from his friends.
3. Thanks to Gary Teetzel, I didn't blow this review and with it my overall credibility. I was so busy watching to see who was and who wasn't in the film's final shot, that I didn't notice that the party was a wedding party with a cake and the whole works. I came to an utterly wrong conclusion that everybody else in the world got right. That's why I call myself 'DVD Savant': "Rosebud? Sled? What sled?"
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.