Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 7, 2014)
Back in 1996, Jon Favreau made a name for himself as the writer and star of Swingers. In more recent years, however, Favreau focused on big-budget action fare like Iron Man and Cowboys and Aliens.
2014 saw Favreau return to his low-budget character-oriented roots via Chef. Carl Casper (Favreau) works as the head chef in a successful high-end Los Angeles restaurant. When he learns that prominent critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) will come to write a review, Carl wants to create a special menu, but conservative owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) orders him to stick with the old tried and true.
This doesn’t go well and Michel pans the food. Frustrated and upset, Carl confronts Michel online, and remnants of this incident go viral. In the aftermath of this hubbub, Carl quits the restaurant.
Without much direction, Carl finds himself in Miami at the bidding of his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara). Via another ex of her own (Robert Downey, Jr.), Inez sets up Carl with a food truck and urges him to use it to launch his own traveling business.
Inez possesses an ulterior motive as well, for she tells Carl to take their adolescent son Percy (Emjay Anthony) on the truck’s drive from Miami to Los Angeles. Carl treats Percy more like an inconvenience than anything else, so Inez hopes the journey will bond the two. We follow their adventures as well as Carl’s creative awakening.
With plenty of great reviews and a good character-based concept behind it, I went into Chef with fairly high expectations. Unfortunately, I left it with little more than disappointment, as I felt the result gave us a self-indulgent snoozer.
At its core, Chef feels like a product of Favreau’s ego more than anything else. Carl comes across as an unlikable jerk most of the time but others kiss up to him the whole movie, and his character growth feels forced and artificial. Inevitably he develops a closer bond to Percy, but I don’t buy it. These elements feel like movie convention and never appear organic; Carl bonds with Percy because the film tells us he does, not because he really connects with the kid.
Pacing also becomes a major problem. Chef moves really slowly because it feels like half of it just shows people cooking or eating. Heck, it might be more than half – I should’ve timed it, but it comes across like we get little more than never-ending shots of food.
Eventually I started to wonder if someone accidentally substituted outtakes from the Food Channel instead of the movie. I get that food's an important aspect of the film, but why do we have to watch so many images of cooking/eating? We lose valuable character time just to view "food porn", and this creates a prominent problem.
Chef comes with rampant product placement as well, mostly aimed at Twitter. Yeah, it features Twitter in a way to advance the plot, but much of the usage seems gratuitous – and incessant, ala all those shots of cooking/eating. Chef nods toward Facebook as well, but it often feels like a long ad for Twitter, and that side of things adds yet another drag on an already sluggish film.
Favreau’s ego really does get the best of him here. I can sort of buy the notion that hot women like Vergara and Scarlett Johansson show romantic interest in Carl despite his obesity and average-at-best looks, as I think women would be attracted to Carl’s supposed creative genius. However, Favreau ladles on the Carl-related praise so heavily that it often feels like he just wants the plaudits for himself and not the character.
Favreau also appears to want to use Chef as a bully pulpit against critics. When Carl confronts Michel, Favreau's argument seems to be "I worked hard on this so you shouldn't criticize it", which smells a lot like "everyone gets a trophy day".
I think these parts of Chef come across as petty and vindictive, and the situation is made worse by the fact the movie includes two similar rants from the lead. One feels bad enough, but then Favreau has to push his agenda one more time. Dude, you’ve directed enormously successful movies – why such insecurity? Maybe the failure of Cowboys and Aliens nagged at Favreau.
Throw in a ridiculous ending that doesn’t know when to quit and Chef ends up as a massive disappointment. Favreau gets a worthwhile concept along with a simply amazing cast; he must’ve called in a lot of favors to land the often “A”-list group on display here. Unfortunately, he wastes all this on a self-indulgent, ego-driven dud.