Although the storyline doesn’t veer far from well-established basic themes we’ve seen in countless films over the years involving reinventing your life, father-son dynamics, road trips, and overcoming adversity, with the right ingredients and cast writer/director/star Jon Favreau delivers a sumptuous treat as delectable as the various food on display. Calling on the help of a handful of his old Iron Man buddies, Favreau offers up his best film yet in front of, or behind, the camera.
When we first meet Carl Casper (Favreau) he’s a successful but unhappy head chef. Estranged from both his ex-wife (Sofía Vergara) and son Percy (Emjay Anthony), in a refreshingly honest take on a divorced family that doesn’t go for cheap hate-filled diatribes, Casper’s only brightspot his his enjoyable but mostly empty relationship with a waitress (Scarlett Johansson) which obviously isn’t going anywhere. With Johansson taking more and more roles as the sexy lead it’s great to see her step back into a more understated role reminding us that the actress can do more than just look good in tight pants and kick ass.
Despite a high profile job and the respect of his kitchen staff, Carl constantly finds his creativity stifled while being forced to rely on safe menus rather than branch out and try a wider variety of cuisine. Disagreements with both the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) and a food blogger (Oliver Platt) will push Casper over-the-edge culminating in the loss of his job and an impressive rant that hits the Internet and immediately goes viral making the talented but temperamental chef undesirable by any other restaurant for the foreseeable future.
Reluctantly taking up the opportunity presented by his ex-wife to own his own food truck and take care of his son for the summer, Carl and Percy fly East to Florida to pick-up the truck. With the help of Carl’s old friend Martin (John Leguizamo), the group will spruce up the food truck and slowly make their way cross country back to California making various stops along the way to add local ingredients to their mouth-watering menu which soon becomes a phenomenon thanks to some low-budget but effective marketing due mostly to Carl’s son.
More than any other film I can think of, Chef successfully incorporates social media to showcase the physical and emotional journey Carl and his son begin on together. Beginning with Twitter, Chef showcases a variety of applications ranging from Instagram and Snapchat to 1 Second Everyday and Vine which Percy, and later Carl, adopts to highlight the food truck’s cross-country journey. We also see the influence of a blogger who doesn’t feel the need to temper his soul-crushing brutal criticism after being profoundly disappointed in the restaurant’s menu. (For more on the film’s social media aspects you can check out an article I wrote here.)
Social media is far from the only thing Chef gets right as Favreau creates and engaging story filled with terrific-looking food (if you go in hungry you will certainly leave famished) while making use of his talented cast. Other than Robert Downey Jr., cast to do what has become his over-the-top trademark shtick, the performances and relationships are understated in a fashion more mainstream Hollywood films struggle against studio pressures to achieve while pushing for bigger laughs and broader comedy. Even Vergara, whom I’ve seen too often cast as more of a caricature than character, is allowed to tone things down offering one of the actress’ best performances.
Of the films I have seen so far in 2014 Chef is an early stand-out. Slowly rolling out across the country, I’m hopeful that positive word of mouth (along with the film’s own use of social media to promote its release dates and engage fans) will help the film stick around over the course of the summer as a more filling alternative to the various summer candy most movie theaters will stock up on. You may have to search a little harder to find it than something like Godzilla or the latest Spider-Man flick, but you’ll be glad you did.