Jon Favreau purges his big-budget demons with a return to the personal and palatable.
Catharsis is crucial in filmmaking, as Jon Favreau clearly knows. The writer, director and star emerges from big-budget cinema to return to the smaller side of Hollywood, seemingly purging his demons and addressing his disappointments in the process.
Favreau started his stint behind the lens with Made, and last helmed the underwhelming Cowboys & Aliens, but is best known for Iron Man and Iron Man 2. This journey informs Chef, complete with commentary on the perils of fame, the difficulties of criticism in the digital age, and the creative corruption that comes with working for the big end of town. The parallels are easy and obvious.
In Chef, Carl Casper (Favreau) has toiled from humble beginnings to become Los Angeles' premier culinary artist, but a decade working for a profit-focused restaurateur (Dustin Hoffman) sees his menus branded safe, not daring. A scathing review by a prominent food blogger (Oliver Platt) calls out his creative malaise, swirling into a storm of negative press and social media that ushers him out of a job. At first, Carl resists the encouragement of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) to start his own food van. Soon, he's rediscovering his passion for cooking and reconnecting with his ten-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), in a road trip across the continent.
With the heavy-handed correlations between Favreau's own fortunes and his on-screen alter ego evident, Chef is the filmmaker's opportunity to assemble something reduced in stature but substantial in content. Every aspect of the film reinforces the connection, not just in the narrative that shouts its thematic similarity, the informal aesthetic that rallies against special effects-driven efforts or the indulgent running time, but also in the brief appearances from fellow Marvel alumni Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson, worlds away from their franchise outings.
Though the statement of Chef could have easily overpowered any involvement with the characters, Favreau fleshes out Casper's relationship with the idolising Percy in the film's strongest emotional arc. Understated performances also sell the fictional scenario beyond its autobiographical subtext, with the filmmaker leisurely affable in a rare lead role, and youngster Anthony empathetic but not overly sentimental. Laidback turns from Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo round out the likeable cast.
As blunt and predictable as it always is, Favreau's offering proves appetising in the undemanding manner of the food trucks it covets — and repeatedly invites the comparison. Fine ingredients abound, including finessed visuals of enticing meals on par with the best food-centric efforts; however, poise and polish are swapped for a handmade feel and celebratory outcome. Gourmet filmmaking this isn't, but nor is it a fast food confection. Instead, the therapeutic and thoughtful Chef serves up palatable passion that's pleasantly rough around the edges.