Film review: Chef

Despite a star-studded cast, Chef is definitely the Jon Favreau Show.
Despite a star-studded cast, Chef is definitely the Jon Favreau Show.

(M) ***

Director: Jon Favreau.

Cast: Jon Favreau, EmJay Anthony, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman.

WITH his last two films as director being Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, it's no wonder Jon Favreau has returned to telling smaller stories.

The latter was a flop, the former not a patch on its predecessor (which he also directed), so trading in the big CG extravaganzas for an indie-vibe father-son story might be just what Favreau needed to cleanse his palate.

Chef is certainly a tasty offering - maybe not as filling as others and it runs out of ingredients by the end - but it's certainly worth a nibble.

Now that the necessary food metaphors out of the way, here's what it's all about: Favreau stars as top class chef Carl Casper, who takes a bad review really badly.

He starts a flame war on Twitter, has a massive public meltdown, becomes a YouTube sensation (in the worst way possible), and ultimately finds himself jobless and wondering what he's doing with his life.

He's also a divorcee father trying to figure out how to connect with his son Percy (played well by newcomer Anthony), and isn't too keen to be accepting helpful advice from his ex-wife (Vergara).

There's a breezy charm to Chef that washes over you, thanks in part to Favreau's casual yet effective performance and a supporting cast that is equally effortless (in a good way).

Prime examples can be found in Favreau's early kitchen scenes between him and his fellow chefs (Leguizamo and Cannavale), which have an improvised feel to them that is natural, even though they're light on for humour.

And "light on" is perhaps the best way to describe Chef. As much as Favreau's chef Casper slathers the mustard and butter on his mouthwatering Cuban sandwiches, he's more frugal with the drama and comedy (Favreau is not only director and star, but also writer on this effort).

While the entire film is pleasant and enjoyable, it lacks a lot of big laughs, and Casper's very public downfall doesn't seem to hit low enough, making his subsequent rejuvenation less triumphant. Where are the scenes of him getting recognised and laughed at in the street? He tells us things are bad, but we never see them. Casper says "I'm a meme" at one point, but we never see the meme, nor the real downsides to his downfall.

Because of this, the whole thing peters out as it goes on. It's no less fun than the first, but it's nowhere near as interesting, which is a shame because the latter half is where the film's heart lies, given over to Casper rebuilding his life and reconnecting with his son.

It's heartwarming stuff but compared to the pith and vinegar of the first half - which takes potshots at critics, social media, and the food industry - it's a subdued and anticlimactic end. The latter half flips all those negatives into positives, which is intriguing in itself, but it means the film leaves with a dreamy half-smile as opposed to a beaming grin.

It should be noted that the big name cast is slightly misleading. Robert Downey Jr pops in for a cameo, Hoffman is in only two or three (admittedly pivotal) scenes, Johansson only has about a dozen lines, and Platt has only two scenes. Everyone does their bit but these sideplayers tend to fade into the background - this is definitely the Favreau Show.

As such, it's fun, and Favreau is an amicable host. His camera lingers over the cooking shots with relish (pun intended), he pulls some neat tricks to illustrate social media onscreen, and his script has some good lines and heart-warming moments.

While not quite a full meal, Chef is more like the decent-sized entrée you order when you're not sure how hungry you really are.


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