Blu-ray Review: Chef (2014)

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Aside from Jon Favreau’s massive success as a studio director who crafted a contemporary Christmas classic with Elf and kickstarted Marvel’s moviemaking domination in the new millennium with Iron Man 1 and 2), he’s always strived to inject his own life into his work.

In fact, he took the age-old adage to write what you know to heart as far back as his groundbreaking script for Swingers, which put not only himself but his friend and former Rudy costar Vince Vaughn as well as future Bourne Identity director Doug Liman on the map.

Celebrating that success but staying true to his roots, while his follow-up feature filmmaking debut Made didn’t score as big of a hit as his first scripted effort, the allusions to his life as a rising artist with the goal of just getting a movie made and fighting to make it his own makes Made perhaps his most personal feature until now.

And as such, Made makes a perfect companion piece to this – his best picture in years – Chef.

On the surface it’s an enjoyable underdog story about a workaholic chef who – once on the cusp of a promising career – has lost some of the love for what it is that he does after years of cooking safe, easily palatable, and highly popular yet ultimately uninspired meals at his otherwise successful L.A. eatery which is run by Dustin Hoffman's micromanaging owner.

When Favreau’s Chef Carl Casper – known affectionately as El Jefe by his loyal staff – has a major meltdown after being unprofessionally eviscerated in an scathingly over-the-top review laden with personal attacks by the prominent food blogger who’d championed his talent ten years earlier, the confrontation between the two men goes viral.

Creatively, emotionally, and professionally at his lowest point after being unceremoniously fired, Carl eventually decides to write a new recipe for success. With his supportive ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and loving son (Emjay Anthony) by his side, he travels to Miami where he'd originally experienced success a decade earlier.

Soon inspired by the food of the city that first ignited his passion for cooking Cuban cuisine in particular, Carl, his sous chef/best friend (John Leguizamo), and son Percy take the food truck supplied by Vergara’s other ex (Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr.) that’s as rundown on the outside as Carl feels on the inside and fix it up.

Nicknaming the new and improved restaurant on wheels El Jefe, the trio spend the summer traveling from one major gastronomic destination to the next while adding in the flavors of New Orleans and Texas as they gradually make their way back to Los Angeles.

Yet far more than just a culinary journey, Chef chronicles Carl’s own existential crisis and coming-of-middle-age as once he’s on the road, he begins to reevaluate his priorities to define success in a different way.

Realizing a bit too late he’s left his role as a father on the back burner as well as what the idea of “quality time” truly means as – instead of a rollercoaster ride or a trip to a blockbuster Hollywood film his son would much rather have a real live conversation with his dad – the work begins exploring the generation gap in a creative way.

With the young tech savvy Percy going from simply signing Carl up for Twitter to becoming El Jefe’s head of grassroots marketing via Vine and any number of apps the film incorporates, Favreau’s cinematic metaphor about how many hats an artist in any medium must both embrace and wear to make it in today’s society takes even greater shape.

For just like with the idea of getting his first film Made made, Favreau’s latest opus operates as a timely allegory for the industry in which he’s worked for more than two decades.

And as a far cry from play-it-safe tentpole franchise films that try to distract us as near rollercoaster rides into forgetting how great it feels to be genuinely moved by a picture about people we can relate to just having an authentic conversation, Chef lays out this argument in a variety of ways.

Obviously the writer/director address this directly in its screenplay in the scenes between father and son after Carl walks away from the restaurant industry (read: big blockbuster moviemaking) due to pressure from his own version of a studio head in Hoffman.

However, Favreau also acknowledges it indirectly on a meta-level as a talky indie film itself that is just the representation of and antidote to the type of movies his onscreen child is tired of in favor of good old conversation.

And in doing so, the offscreen chef (Favreau) gets reinvigorated by the own medium he loved in the late ‘90s (via Swingers and Made) similar to the way that Carl does by returning to his roots in Miami.

Thus in addition to his audience and his onscreen son, Favreau undoubtedly shares the same appetite for relatable filmmaking on a more personal level, not only returning to the same independent model of filmmaking in which he got his start but also by inviting along nearly a dozen likeminded marquee names he’s since befriended and/or worked with along the way to join him as well.

Bringing their own talent and hunger to the table, the diverse dream cast (boasting a standout performance by the young Emjay Anthony who holds his own with everyone) managed to make a film that says as much about the food industry as it does about the current state of music, literature, and film.

For example, in a brilliantly penned line, Hoffman berates the chef to play (or cook) his hits like Mick Jagger must do at damn near every Rolling Stones show before the filmmaker manages to insert some clever questions and subtle comments about criticism, marketing, self-made media, and the thin line of all three in between.

At one painful food truck gathering early on, we watch a pushy policeman treat the chef like a trained seal – turning into a groupie by forcing Favreau’s chef to pose for multiple selfies, which I’m embarrassed to say I’ve seen occur in person at too many press junkets where clueless “reporters” follow the movie cop's lead.

Particularly inventive is the way that Favreau addresses the good and bad of the social media infotainment age where the twenty-four hour news cycle requires more and more outrageous morsels of interchangeable content for sugar-high ratings spikes or empty calorie click-bait without stopping to ask if the subject is even or should be “news” before they begin.

An entertaining, heartfelt ensemble movie with an awful lot to say, Chef is engaging enough as it is to stand on its own. However, like an expensive, decadent multicourse meal that you just might want to savor, the more you think about the implications of what’s really being said beyond the frame, the more you’ll realize that he made something much more resonant that a mere foodie film.

Wisely understanding that Tinsletown spoofs seldom play as well to those outside the industry, Favreau’s skewered take on franchise filmmaking where the product is packaged like fast food works on a multitude of levels whichever way you watch it.

The director’s best feature since Elf and his strongest piece of screenwriting since Swingers, Chef is certain to satisfy as a word-of-mouth hit that plays even better as the main course to the appetizer of Made and when you go back for more and look at it the second time around.

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