“You’re trending, bro”
I have to say it. A guy clueless about Twitter—who doesn’t understand tweets are public—knows what a meme is less than forty-eight hours later? Not only knows but smugly acts smarter than a woman who’s obviously his junior by legitimately asking whether she knows? It shouldn’t irk me so much, but the movie hinges a lot of its plot progression on the concept of social media paired with the internet savvy of a ten year-old boy. Save that meme joke for the end if you absolutely need it. Show how this poor excuse for a father learns to love his son and comprehend aspects of the World Wide Web. Luckily for Jon Favreau, I can’t stay mad. I’m a huge fan of his work and save this one misstep Chef is a lot of fun.
What on the surface seems a slight film about family, regeneration, and food—a sort of indie passion project he could write and direct to free himself from Hollywood for a spell—actually proves to have a lot going on. The familial aspect is definitely paramount, though, with his character Carl Casper being married to his work so that dealing with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) becomes a chore. We see it, he knows it, and sadly so does the boy. But this was his dream: to make good on the promise that he was the next big thing according to food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). The kitchen consumed his life, pushed away ex-wife Inez (Sofía Vergara), and ultimately formed a cloud of depression everyone sees but him. The fun of cooking was gone.
So here’s a guy readying for the most important night of this newest chapter of his life—Michel is coming to review him again—and he’s in desperate need of love. The hostess from the restaurant he works at does her best (Scarlett Johansson‘s Molly), but she can tell nothing will ever be serious between them because of how inwardly tortured he is. He needs love from his son, but you don’t earn that unless you find a way to give it first and he’s simply way too busy preparing a new menu he knows his boss (Dustin Hoffman‘s Riva) won’t allow to go live. Carl is trapped in a state of emotional, personal, and professional arrested development with no way out. He goes through the motions only to watch everything slip away until finally imploding his career.
The beauty of Favreau’s creation is that we laugh at him the whole way down. Casper pretty much deserves everything happening to him because he refuses to find one shred of humility. He has too much stuff going on to hang out with his kid. He needs to toe the company line or risk losing the job that affords him the opportunity to be creative. He covets the attention of the pretty girl at the front of the restaurant because he’s already lost the family he built when he first cut his teeth. Days of pure joy with a bright future ahead of him are long gone and he simply can’t cope with accepting he’s the reason why. So when the chance to go back to those roots presents itself, he thankfully lets himself get dragged away.
This Miami sojourn is the catalyst for rebirth in all aspects of his life. It’s a tried and true transformation we’ve seen countless times before, but it’s told with some Latino flavor through the hot summer heat, hip-shaking music, and copious amounts of mouth-watering food. Seriously, Favreau should have added an intermission just so we could have a few minutes to grab something to eat halfway through because you will crave the Cuban, Creole, and gourmet cuisine on display. But it helps us invest in the otherwise stock characters alternately coming together and pulling apart by giving them this visceral equalizer. Food and cooking bonds them whether they know it or not and the independent yet communal atmosphere of the food truck Carl opens provides a cathartic meeting place that lets frustration, guilt, and regret melt away.
Even then Favreau has an uncanny way of making us despise Carl by playing him with his head so far up his ass he doesn’t realize when his son throws him a bone on how to be a good Dad. It’s actually more authentic this way because someone as self-righteous as Casper won’t turn things around overnight. Constant prodding is necessary to steer him onto an emotional path towards understanding it doesn’t matter what he does with his kid so long as he’s present while doing it. This seems like a simple, implicit concept and yet we see examples of how difficult it is everyday. Carl’s positioned to teach Percy how to cook and the boy is primed to usher his father into the twenty-first century technologically and it’s so much better than going to Disney World.
These two aspects provide Chef‘s best flourishes via food preparation scenes that are sensual in their detail and rhythm and a constant barrage of Twitter windows floating above the action to set up a logical reason why Carl’s truck El Jefe attracts so many customers so soon. In that way it’s a relevant commentary on our evolving world and how we communicate, the intelligence of our youth in non-traditional ways, and the relationship between artist and critic—a seemingly personal release for Favreau creatively. There are real themes underneath the humor from supporting players John Leguizamo, Robert Downey Jr., and Amy Sedaris: meat to sink our teeth into while laughing and dancing. These are grossly imperfect characters teaching each other how to be their best through lessons masked as fun, discovering why they went off track and yearning to get back.