Review: CHEF

A once hotshot artist made the A-list some time ago, but is now creatively stifled by having to produce safe, crowd-pleasing fodder rather than the bolder, more exciting work he knows he is capable of, and which made his name in the first place.

We could talking about chef Carl Casper, the character at the centre of Jon Favreau’s latest movie CHEF, or we could be talking about Favreau himself, who rose to prominence as the writer and star of SWINGERS but who is most recently remembered for getting swiftly kicked in them after directing COWBOYS & ALIENS. Of course we’re talking about both.

In Casper’s case, he’s been head chef for some years at a high profile L.A. restaurant owned by Riva (Dustin Hoffman). On a night when they have been tipped off that powerful food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) will be visiting, Casper wants to present something new and bold. Riva wants to ‘play the hits’ – guess who gets their way? Cue: chain of events resulting in public meltdown, humiliation on YouTube, and his firing from the restaurant. Salvation though, presents itself in family, friends, and a food truck…

I can think of few subgenres more difficult to pull off than the ‘Semi-autobiographical “Get Thy Mojo Back” Project’. Put a foot wrong and it’s very easy to end up looking like a narcissistic, self-indulgent wanker. Fortunately Favreau has retained his sharp skills as writer, director and performer to confidently walk this line, so even when Casper’s story does stray into tweeness, he reels us back in with a dose of heady self-deprecation.

The supporting performances are joyful; John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale as Casper’s kitchen lieutenants make a great team, Hoffman’s Riva is given honest and credible reasons for his actions, and Platt’s critic is crucially not just a simple arse, but right. Fellow IRON MAN (directed by Favreau) veterans Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. make the most of their brief screen time, and it’s nice to see Sofia Vergara doing something a little less broad.

As you’d expect, food itself plays a prominent role in CHEF, and unsurprisingly it all looks amazing. That, however - to lovingly light and shoot food preparation – is easy. What’s far more impressive here is the accuracy with which Favreau captures the mood and feel of modern professional cookery not only as an art form, but a lifestyle; sure, there have been many other films to dote as heavily on the process of creating cuisine over the years (let us never forget the omelette scene at the end of BIG NIGHT), but as someone who’s worked a couple of kitchens – albeit in the lowliest of stations – I’ll declare that as far as the day to day life, atmosphere and politics of chefing goes, Favreau gets closer to the real deal than anything in recent memory. He's clearly taken not only the technical but also the anecdotal advice of his off-camera expert advisors to heart, and his knife skills aren’t half bad, either.

So too, it wins at social media. It’s astonishing that it’s taken this long for an accurate, realistic representation of the many uses and pitfalls of twitter, instagram et al. to make it into a mainstream movie, but Favreau folds them pleasingly into CHEF, as part of a plot thread involving his almost-estranged 10 year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony). Once again Favreau offers up sweetness without transgressing into saccharine – Percy isn’t a mopey, monosyllabic rebel with his face constantly buried in his mobile phone, but initially yearns for his busy Dad’s attention, and is genuinely thrilled to become a valued part of the crew, wholly enjoying the excitement of the food truck as it trundles through some of the greatest food landmarks in the US, loving being treated like an adult as any kid would. Again - it’s sugary, but manages to stay just the right side of sickly courtesy of some salty humour, often involving an on-form Leguizamo.

The only real problem Favreau gives himself is a refusal to really challenge his character – Casper’s fall from grace is fine, but his journey to redemption barely hits a speedbump as his family and friends enable him with convenient coincidences at every turn – my first ex-husband wants to sell you a truck for next to nothing! I know some guys who can make it look brand new overnight! When one character in particular becomes inconvenient they simply disappear, before the story finally goes overboard with a near-diabetic ending it has neither properly set up, nor even remotely earned.

Fortunately that’s not enough to spoil all of CHEF’s prior good work, and we’re left with one of the warmest, most soulful American family films of the year. Of course if you love food and cooking it’s a must, but there’s a lot more besides to savour.

CHEF is released May 8 in Australia and New Zealand, May 9 in the US, and June 25 in the UK.