AUSTIN – The Jon Favreau who wrote and directed “Chef” is the same Jon Favreau who helped create “Swingers” and “Made,” the same guy who brought a distinctly independent voice to “Iron Man,” the same guy who gave “Elf” such an unexpectedly big heart, and the same guy who seemed almost completely submerged in the giant studio product of “Cowboys and Aliens.” I have no doubt you'll see plenty of people attempting to turn “Chef” into Favreau's autobiographical reaction to his own career, and while I think there are some valid and interesting parallels, I also think it would be both cheap and easy to assume that this is simply some knee-jerk cry of “But I'm really an ARRRRRRRTIST!”
“Chef” is a deceptively simple film. Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a chef who works for an upscale Los Angeles restaurant. Anointed a decade earlier as a promising young chef by a restaurant critic (Oliver Platt) in Miami, Carl has settled into a routine, cooking the same food every day, serving a menu he doesn't really believe in, and little by little, it's killing him. His job has already cost him his wife Inez (Sophia Vergera) and his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), and it feels like Carl barely exiss away from the kitchen. When the same critic who first helped make his reputation reviews the restaurant and delivers what feels like a very personal and pointed savaging, Carl melts down, and he finds himself out of work.
The scene where Carl faces off against the critic in the restaurant is pretty great, but I think it's going to be misread by some people. Right after the movie, I ended up in a conversation about it on the street with a few people, and someone said, “You know that in that scene, Favreau is yelling at you, right?” Carl talks about how much the bad review hurt and how hard he and his kitchen staff work to make people happy, and there is very real fury and very real pain in how he articulates himself. But over the course of the movie, it becomes clear that Carl had no real investment in the menu he served that critic, and no matter how much technical skill there was in the cooking, there was no passion in it. Without giving away the rest of the film, suffice it to say that by the end of the film, that confrontation is given a whole new context, and it becomes clear that Carl is as angry at himself in that moment as anyone else. This is not a movie about a guy learning that critics are stupid and useless. Not at all. If anything, the film argues that a critic can sometimes offer someone a perspective on their work that they could never reach by themselves, and the harshest review can also be a heartfelt wake-up call.
Carl has to reinvent himself, and at the same time, he longs for a way to connect with his son. Emjay Anthony gives a tremendous, unaffected performance in the film, natural and easy and relaxed even when playing extended improvised scenes with Favreau and John Leguizamo, who is Carl's sous chef and good friend. Inez pushes Carl to open his own food truck, something where he can be in charge 100%, and a trip to Miami wakes him up to the potential of the idea. The film's second half is a road trip as Carl makes his way across the country, honing his menu and learning who this great, smart, funny kid is who looks up to him. The film is loose and genuine and makes great use of place. There are stops in New Orleans and Austin that should make any foodie positively drool, and it was fun to hear the hometown Austin crowd go berserk when Carl makes a stop at Franklin Barbecue to buy four briskets.
There's a lovely sense of humor to the film, never forced or frantic, and I think they do an amazing job of capturing the real feeling of working in a kitchen. Things aren't beautiful and perfectly organized. The best movies about cooking and food understand that these are things that connect us, and they create a tactile sense of what it is that makes food such a powerful sensory experience. I'd put this on the same shelf as “Big Night” or “Like Water For Chocolate,” films that treat food as a way into saying something about the people who prepare it. Chef Roy Choi served as the consultant on the film to make sure that Favreau gets all the details right, and there's a lovely moment during the closing credits where we get a glimpse of Choi teaching Favreau how to prepare a dish. One of the pleasures of being an actor has got to be polishing a skill set enough to be able to do it well on camera, and learning those skills from people who are amazingly gifted.
The film is packed with familiar faces, all doing very good work. Scarlett Johansson has a small but lovely role as the hostess from the restaurant where Carl works, John Leguizamo is at his most appealing as Carl's best friend, and Bobby Cannavale takes what could have been an overwrought antagonist's role and makes him human and even charming. Hoffman makes the most of his few scenes, Amy Sedaris shows up for one gloriously strange moment, and Oliver Platt gives a nuanced and rich performance as the critic whose provocations bring about Carl's entire crisis. Favreau even calls in a favor and has Robert Downey Jr. show up for one scene that makes perfect use of that smart but savage wit of his.
As much as I like his work here as both writer and director, I think I would call this my favorite Favreau performance. While Carl is definitely in crisis in the film, I don't think he ever comes across as weak or as sad. He is simply dealing with the fall-out from the choices he's made in the past, and he does so in a way that I thought seemed very real, very honest. I am constantly struggling to balance my personal life and my professional obligations, and I was moved by the small ways Favreau illustrates the toll that Carl's various failures have taken on his relationship with his son. The sitcom big studio version of this movie would make Carl a raging asshole at the start of the film so that his redemption would be completely clear. I hate that trope, the whole “Dad is a piece of crap because he works hard” thing, because it's always played so broad and obvious. “Chef” gets right all the small compromises that define us, and watching Carl struggle to find some modicum of happiness and to reconnect with his passion is quite moving without ever becoming maudlin. If I have any complaint, it is simply that they make it too easy for Carl to get everything he wants in about the last five or ten minutes of the film. Before that, though, it feels like there are no real missteps, and it's really impressive.
This weekend, my oldest son is having the kickoff parade for his spring season of Little League, and my youngest son is having his sixth birthday party, and I'm missing both of those events so I can be here in Austin to work. I am acutely aware of each choice I make in which I lose something having to do with my kids in favor of something that has to do with my career, and it guts me every time. It never gets easier to let them down, no matter how much they say they understand. At one point, Carl is talking to his son about how he is not particularly good at being a husband or a father or even a person, but he has this one thing that he does incredibly well. “Every good thing that has ever happened to me was because of that,” he says, referring to his cooking, and that line hit me hard. I adore film. I live and breathe film. And, yes, almost every good thing that has ever happened to me was because of that.
None of that matters, though, if I can't share it with my kids, and that simple truth shines through loud and clear in “Chef,” a movie with a heart the size of Texas, and the perfect way to kick off this year's South By Southwest film festival.
“Chef” opens in theaters May 9, 2014.