I hate to use such a tired critic’s phrase, but it’s appropriate here: Jon Favreau’s Chef is the feel-good movie of the Summer.
Of course it’s hard to to watch Chef and not see it as a direct corollary to director Jon Favreau’s own career. Here is a movie about an artist (as all great chefs truly are) who gained fame with his unique creations and new flavors. Carl Casper (Favreau) has a cushy, well-paid job working for an uncreative businessman (Dustin Hoffman) who demands normalcy and consistency in his pretty-good high-ish-end restaurant. The normalcy and consistency is what makes money, but Carl longs to create something more, something new and creative — something personal. He eventually explodes in front of a food critic (Oliver Platt), loses his job, and rebuilds his life with a smaller, more personal, more passionate enterprise.
Jon Favreau himself, of course, exploded onto the indie scene in the mid 1990s with two excellent character-driven comedies Swingers and Made. He then broke into commercial filmmaking with Zathura, and, in 2008, made Iron Man, which is – if we’re all honest with ourselves – the only reason we have an Avengers series at all; We have Favreau to personally thank for the current superhero craze (he and Robert Downey, Jr.) But, after the critical drubbing of his films Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau is now returning to a smaller, more modest form of filmmaking.
So when Dustin Hoffman’s character berates Carl for not being predictable enough, one can almost hear the voice of Kevin Feige. When Scarlett Johansson – who plays the comely restaurant hostess that Carl is secretly having an affair with – says to Carl that he’ll “never be happy here,” you can almost see it as a conversation between an actress savvy in the big-budget filmmaking world, and an auteur who may have been trapped there. When Carl rants at the insensitive critic, he’s really yelling at, well, people like me who gave “meh” reviews to his last two movies. When Carl opens his food truck, and finds that he is much happier in that position, Favreau is almost declaring openly that personal projects are more meaningful than commercial enterprises. In a way, he’s declaring that, while the money is good at Disney, it may not be his own passion. I’m not sure what to make of cameo actor Robert Downey, Jr.’s comment, though, that he had a vasectomy back in 2008. Wasn’t that the year Iron Man came out? Hmm…
I’ve always felt that filmmakers are far more interesting when they’re working with their passions under limited means. Peter Jackson was more fun when he was shooting zombies, George Lucas was more invested in American Graffiti than his Star Wars prequels, and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 – in terms of entertainment value and in cultural clout – easily laps whatever he put in his studio-sanctioned Spider-Man movies. So watching Favreau make a movie about Cuban cooking, rebuilding his life, and finding a niche doing something he’s both good at and adores is an exhilarating and happy experience. Sometimes there is a great pleasure to be had watching someone excelling at something they love. Never mind that there’s little at stake – most of the Chef‘s drama seems to resolve by the end of the second act – it’s just a comforting experience. We all want to make a living doing something we’re good at. Chef fulfills that fantasy not only for Favreau, but for everyone. Never mind that he fulfills his fantasy of being paired with Scarlett Johansson, while Sofia Vergara is his ex-wife. But I guess we can give him a pass on that one.
None of the self-referential material would have been worth a damn, however, if Chef were not also a darn delightful movie. It’s bright, easy, and comforting. As a critic, I feel like I have to address Favreau personally, so to him, I say: Jon, you still have it. You are a creative soul interested in making good movies. Welcome back. As if we ever lost you.
Rating: 4 Burritos