Jon Favreau’s Chef, which he writes, directs and stars in, is a feast for the eyes and the taste buds as the talented filmmaker brings the delights of the kitchen to the screen…
A title like Chef doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity, and in the case of Jon Favreau’s latest production there is indeed none. This is a film that’s all about food, with frequent close-ups of sizzling culinary concoctions that will make you wish it’s dinnertime already. But it’s also very much a film about Favreau himself, the character of this titular kitchensmith and the relationships he cooks up with some more human ingredients.
In an early scene Favreau, in the guise of professional chef Carl Casper, and Emjay Anthony, playing his son Percy, discuss New Orleans. When Carl asks what he knows about the city, Percy reveals a detailed knowledge of its history, clearly absorbed with gusto at school, but this contribution is ignored by his less cultured father, whose response is ‘I mean, like, now’. It’s a setup for a generational clash that’s a central, oft-repeated motif of this film.
The ignorance-as-charm device extends not just to human relationships, but to the deployment of technology too, as Favreau (who, by the way, is writer, director and producer as well as actor, so who knows whether he’ll get time to ever actually watch the thing) wrings every bit of juice out of portraying an IT dunce who needs to adapt to modern technology if he wants to get ahead. There’s a recurring joke about ‘asking your mother’, a phrase that has been used by devious fathers to fob off their children for generations. But this kid is always one step ahead; whenever Carl directs him motherward, Percy immediately waves his mobile and declares ‘already did, she said yes’. At some point you’d think our hero would cotton onto this, but he does have a lot on his plate (sorry). And the message keeps being ladled on thick (not sorry), with a reference to piano-playing cats that flies over Carl’s head and a painful episode where the instruction he receives in using a camera phone is reminiscent of those awful moments we all experience when an aged parent asks to be shown how to copy and paste.
Although the nuances of the father/son relationship form the main narrative drive of Chef, comedy is very much on the menu. Highlights include Favreau demonstrating a nice line in self-deprecation through several jokes about his weight, while somebody describes Carl’s boss as a ‘psychopath’, only for genial American national treasure Dustin Hoffman’s to trundle onto the screen. An impending visit from a celebrity food critic sees Carl rally his kitchen staff in the style of a coach in a hilariously cliched sports picture, while what looks at first glance like an impending frisson with the ever-delicious Scarlett Johansson character turns into Carl, never truly off duty, cooking her a meal. Now, at least, we know that the stomach is also the way to a woman’s heart.
John Leguizamo is at his best as Carl’s best bud Martin, a playful character who charms the camera in the actor’s best role in years. His playful rapport with both father and son keeps things bubbling along nicely, and the banter feels genuine, such as when Leguizamo turns up to work on Carl’s food van to be told ‘You’re hired! Pays nothing’. Carl’s ex-wife Inez is another delight, played convincingly by Sofía Vergara in a role that supports the plot but also carries plenty of significance. She’s character that a less brave script might have painted unsympathetically with that modern cliché, tension created by a parental tug of war for the affections of their unfortunate offspring. Instead Inez is a warm figure who wants only success for an ex-husband she clearly still sees as a close friend. This portrayal of separation is so unusual in Hollywood that the freshness of the concept is nigh-on alarming, although delectably so.
As for Percy, although this precocious child shows a notable lack of enthusiasm early on, it’s an attitude that chimes appropriately with his age. The most that his two fathers, who are in rhapsodies after a particularly groundbreaking cook-up, can get out of him is a word of slight and noncommittal praise. As the kid becomes more involved with things his enthusiasm levels start to sprout, a process that’s handled with a deftness of touch rather than a heavy-handed eureka moment.
As the plot moves out of the kitchen and into real life, the second half of the film morphs into a road movie, with our protagonists having a whale of a time driving cross country. An attractive sense of climate and locale changes along with their progress, but the banter matches the culture all the way. Entering New Orleans, partner in crime Carl and Martin impart some generational wisdom to a bemused Percy, explaining that the best tactic for coping with the unwholesome humidity is to sprinkle corn starch inside one’s underwear. Is there any problem that this film can’t solve with the application of ingredients? All this comes against a backdrop of engaging real life locations and a soundtrack that matches the mood and the geography.
Continuing the happiness-and-cake-for-all theme, it’s refreshing that this movie doesn’t really have a bad guy, with the closest thing to a malevolent force being Dustin Hoffman’s triggerhappy boss, or an all-powerful food critic, ably played by Oliver Platt, but both roles bow out early in the running time.
The cameo count in this film is pretty major, with Robert Downey Jr joining Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt and Johansson in making the kind of brief star appearance that can topple a smaller picture’s delicate layers, but in this case the performances range from seamless (Johansson), through adequate (Hoffman, and Platt) to completely and delightfully over the top (who else but Downey Jr). The timings of these appearances even carry the infallible judgement of an egg timer; Johansson’s subtly underpowered performance resonates with the more darkly toned opening section, whereas Downey Jr’s ridiculous turn pops up around the halfway mark as the atmosphere starts to lighten.
Though painful to admit, one particularly dark cloud hangs gloomily over the entire project, and its name is Twitter. It’s such a shame that, in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable movie, the viewer is forcibly subjected to the single worst example of product placement in cinema history. Not content merely to have the stars enunciate ‘Twitter’ every five minutes, the film frequently, through the medium of the younger, tech-savvy generation, explains to the viewer how some of the aforementioned social network’s (wouldn’t want this article to be accused of product placement now, would we?) more technical functions work. This film is effectively a Twitter tutorial. To compound the situation, when opportunities arise for alternative internet heavyweights to be mentioned, they are never taken. Even the posting of embarrassing videos on the net apparently has nobody thinking of Youtube. In the universe of Chef, there is only Twitter. Fortunately, the effect of all this marketing isn’t enough to destroy the film, but one hopes the money men sleep well. They probably will, as their beds are most likely made of lovely soft fluffy banknotes, and possibly some of Jon Favreau’s special trifle.
But enough cynicism; we can’t mention enough how the understated performance of Emjay Anthony as Percy consistently delights, as well as countering the exuberant showings of just about everyone else in Chef. The Father/Son relationship is what this film lives or dies by. The cameos are an interesting side-show, the co-stars convince, the real locations are refreshing, the script that avoids the usual good guy / bad guy contrivances is refreshing, but this culinary tale really boils down to one thing: does the emotional journey of father and son convince? The answer is spectacularly so.