Carl Casper is the head chef of a Los Angeles restaurant which has been serving up the menu that his boss insists on being cooked for the last ten years. This has left Carl uninspired, overworked, divorced from his wife and disconnected from his son.
When a food critic writes a less than favourable review which leads to a “Flame War” on Twitter and a video of Carl’s meltdown in front of the critic goes viral, he finds himself in need of a job. The solution comes in the form of a taco truck which serves as the catalyst for Carl to fall in love with his chosen profession again and offers him a second chance to build a relationship with his son.
This film has had a lot of press recently, primarily due to the fact that it is written, produced and directed by Jon Favreau, better known as of late for his work in front and behind the camera on the “Iron Man” franchise. “Chef” takes Favreau away from that world and gives him a chance to tell a much more human story that works on various levels.
Yes, given that the film is called “Chef” there are food shots aplenty with Favreau and John Leguizamo giving a great visual presentation of their culinary skills, but if you think that “Chef” is simply a foodie film, then you’d be missing the point.
The main narrative point of this film is one which people who work in unrewarding professions may sympathise with – basically, what do you do when your job is so unrewarding that you’re just “going through the motions”? The fact that Carl works in the culinary profession and his lack of love for the work he does shows through the food he produces makes this point all the more obvious for the viewer, especially when he gets the opportunity to be his own boss thanks to the help he gets from his former wife and the backing of her former husband which reinvigorates his creative passion.
The second ongoing narrative point is how family is important and how easily these relationships can be damaged through overwork, as seen through the fact that Carl is divorced and he has no real bond with his son.
The final arc is one that’s especially relevant in the current world of electronic communication. The first half of the film sets up how the power of the internet can be used negatively, not only through the review that the character of Ramsey Michel, portrayed by Oliver Platt, posts, but the ensuing war of words on Twitter and its ultimate escalation when Carl’s angry reaction to Michel goes viral. The second half of the film shows how social media can be used positively. This can be seen through the way that Carl’s son, Percy, cleverly promotes his father’s business through various media such as Twitter, Vine and Facebook. Whilst films have used social media as a way of communication, most recently in “The Fault In Our Stars”, this is probably the first film that I have seen where social media itself actively drives the narrative throughout.
For a film with independent sensibilities, “Chef” has a top notch cast who all bring their “A Game”.
Jon Favreau matches the sharpness of his dialogue with an equally sharp and well observed performance in the role of Carl. In the first half of the film, you see through his performance – both verbally and physically – a man who is unhappy with his job and this has led him to drop the ball in his relationships. Conversely, he gives a well acted performance in the film’s second and final acts as his passion for food serves as a means to redress the balance of his relationships with his family and with life itself.
John Leguizamo gives an energetic performance in the role of Martin, the line chef who works under Carl both at the restaurant and when he later decides to join him in the taco truck business. Whilst Favreau is the lead, Leguizamo is the driver for the more humourous aspects of the film and perfectly compliments Favreau.
Sofia Vergara gives the film its heart in the role of Carl’s ex-wife, Inez. Even though the characters are divorced, you can see through Ms Vergara’s performance, as well as that of Favreau, that the separation between Carl and Inez is one which both parties didn’t want to happen and only occurred because of Carl’s driven nature, a plot point that is developed throughout the film.
Finally, EmJay Anthony gives a cracking performance in the role of Carl’s son, Percy. He manages to take a lead role alongside Favreau and builds a believable father/son bond which is strained in the first half due to Carl’s lack of attentiveness and which changes during the course of the film as they teach each other skills that the other lacks and building a bond with each other – with Percy teaching his father about the positive advantages of the world of social media whilst Carl teaches Percy about the responsibilities of being a line chef. Anthony manages to do this by being as sharp in his comic timing as his adult counterparts whilst not falling into the trap of being in the stereotypical “cute kid” role.
Even though Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Dustin Hoffman are credited with prominent billing in the film, they are fleeting parts in the storyline – with Downey Jr. only appearing for roughly five minutes in a scene stealing performance in the role of Inez’s first former husband, Marvin.
Underpinning the prominent performances are equally brief, but memorable, performances from Bobby Cannavale in the role of Carl’s hard partying sous chef, Tony, and Oliver Platt as the ascerbic food blogger Ramsey Michel.
One character I have yet to speak of is not a person, but the music. The soundtrack adds an extra layer to the film alongside what you see on screen. The music gives the film a predominantly Cuban atmosphere as much as the Cubanos served up on the taco truck and adds a vibrancy which draws the viewer deeper into the characters’ world. I enjoyed it so much that I bought it this very evening.
As with the other films that have been my favourites of this summer, “Chef” is a film that has plenty of heart and is driven by character as well as plot. Whilst the film is “15” rated in the UK and contains strong language and some sexual language, discussion and innuendo, this contains all the hallmarks of a family film in its core with the relationships between family and friends playing prominent importance.
There was one slight niggle with the film and that was that the last fifteen minutes felt rushed and I wished that I could spend a little longer with Chef Carl and his crew as those last fifteen minutes are the big payoff and the moral of the story.
If I had to sum “Chef” up as a meal, I would say that it’s a hearty three course meal and a lively, fun loving, life affirming antidote to the cinematic version of junk food (big explosions and all).
Rating: Get In The Queue for this cinematic feast