Fri May 30, 2014

Story Isn't On The Menu In 'Chef,' But A Feast For The Senses Sure Is

Back in 1997, writer, director and actor Jon Favreau played an overly enthusiastic chef in some episodes of the sitcom Friends. It turns out he was typecast. Favreau loves food and cooking, his new movie Chef proves it.

When a movie picks up the label “feel good,” I want to run for the hills, because it usually means sappy and cloying. But Jon Favreau’s new picture Chef, really does make you feel good – and yes, it is sappy and cloying, but there’s so much good in the movie that you can overlook the gooey side. This part of Chef is a clichéd story of a preoccupied man learning to notice the young son he’s been ignoring, but once you put that aside, Chef is a wonderful piece about the joy and community that come from food made with love, care and skill, and music also made with love, care and skill.

Writer/director/lead actor Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, a famous chef at a restaurant in Los Angeles. He’s divorced and he has a son Percy, whom he disappoints weekly. Carl has a fight with the owner of the restaurant (Dustin Hoffman) over what to prepare for the visit of a sharp-tongued critic, and winds up walking out of the kitchen in rage and despair, only to find happiness and love cooking Cuban sandwiches in a food truck.

You don’t watch Chef for its story. The glories of the movie are the sequences of Carl doing what he loves.

The shots of Carl chopping vegetables at supersonic speeds may be obligatory, but Favreau celebrates the real skill of his chef – his fingers arrange a piece of meat for the knife which comes into the picture tip first, and then the length of the knife cuts precisely and beautifully. The hands arrange the slices; every move or gesture is deft and sure. One night he makes spaghetti with garlic and olive oil for a woman friend (Scarlett Johannson), and again the film shows off the skill of preparation, as Carl makes a clockwise swirl of the noodles in the saucepan. The grilled cheese sandwich he makes for Percy may be the greatest grilled cheese sandwich in history, and to top it off, you hear the crunch as Carl and Percy bite into this simple, elegant miracle.

In a Miami sequence, Carl, Percy and Carl’s ex-wife, Percy’s mother (the voluptuous Sofia Vergara in skin-tight dresses) go to a club to hear Percy’s grandfather (Jose C. Hernandez Perico) and his Cuban jazz band. They’re terrific, and when the sequence ends, it feels much too soon, and you yearn to hear this man keep playing. In a Texas scene, Gary Clark Jr. plays lovely rhythm and blues guitar.

Chef is in love with things made by human beings – a good knife, a food truck when it’s cleaned and polished, and, of course, the sight of food. It’s like the food and music documentaries of the great Les Blank, with their moments of pure ecstasy over the sensualities and pleasures of human life. The characters in Chef adore these things; it brings them together; it inspires good feeling. When it wanders into the intricacies of human relationships, Chef looks lost, but the movie exults in the life of the senses – smell, sight, taste, sound.

Jon Favreau brought some fine actors into his food movie. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale play the chef’s main assistants. Oliver Platt is the critic. Robert Downey Jr. has just one sequence in the picture, but he’s brilliant. He’s a promoter of some kind who’s totally unmoored. He talks about at least three things all at once; Carl can’t figure out what this guy is talking about, but he gets the food truck for Carl. Downey shows off like mad; he steals the scene – and then like a wisp he vanishes.

The other dazzler is Emjay Anthony as 10-year-old Percy. This kid has tremendous emotional range and control of his voice and his expressions. He gets angry and withdrawn, he pretends to be compliant, and then he’s playful and enthusiastic.

For lots of reasons, Chef isn't much of a film. On the other hand, it’s marvelous.

Related Program