Carl Casper would make Gordon Ramsay his little bitch. Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman and Academy Award nominee Robert Downey, Jr. star in Jon Favreau’s Chef.
Cast of Characters:
Carl Casper – Jon Favreau
Inez – Sofia Vergara
Martin – John Leguizamo
Molly – Scarlett Johansson
Ramsey Michel – Oliver Platt
Tony – Bobby Cannavale
Percy – EmJay Anthony
Riva – Dustin Hoffman
Marvin – Robert Downey, Jr.
Director – Jon Favreau
Screenplay – Jon Favreau
Producer – Karen Gilchrist, Sergei Bespalov & Jon Favreau
Rated R for language, including some suggestive references
Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is a gourmet chef that manages the kitchen at an L.A. restaurant owned by Riva (Dustin Hoffman). After getting hammered by food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), Casper is compelled to shake things up with a new menu. His team of cooks, Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Cannavale), and his hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson) are on board, but Riva wants to play it safe. He feels Casper played the experimenting game before and struck out with the guests, so he needs to go by the menu they got. After Casper refuses, Riva fires him.
Following a meltdown with Michel that has the internet world talking, Casper is finding it harder to line up a new job as a chef. That’s when his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) proposes a plan for him to start a new food truck where he can call the shots.
Younger audiences will generally associate writer/director/actor Jon Favreau for directing the first two entries of Iron Man for Marvel Studios. He may not have been given those opportunities, though, had it not been for his success in independent, lower budget films like Swingers and Made (he wrote both films and directed the latter) that were more character driven pieces. After working behind the camera on sci-fi/action features like Zathura, the Iron Man films and Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau returns back to his roots behind and in front of the camera with Chef. It’s a passion project for him, and it shows.
There’s not much to the narrative here. This is pretty much a movie version of the Food Network with some entertaining characters thrown in. That there is the meat of this film and the talented collection of performers only helps. Favreau also knows his way around the kitchen about as much as he does sharp writing, serving up some stylishly prepared food dishes (that only made me hungrier by looking down at my plain-looking bucket of buttered popcorn) and turning in the best performance he’s given in years. Carl’s a man dying to cook what he really wants to cook following a scathing review, and the fact that many consider this film Favreau “getting back to his roots” after the financial and critical flop that was Cowboys & Aliens presents some real-life parallels between the two.
Emjay Anthony is great as Carl’s kid who’s quite the social media whiz in contrast to his dad who acts like he probably wouldn’t even be able to turn a monitor on. Anthony and Favreau together share terrific chemistry together, and while the Twitter angle with his kid could’ve come off gimmicky, Favreau manages to give it much pertinence to the story (plus an epic meltdown that goes viral) while also displaying it with some stylistic touches.
This film is mostly centered on Carl and his kid, but a very talented supporting cast comes to play even if for only a scene or two. John Leguizamo is the best I’ve seen him in years. Bobby Cannavale provides some fun banter with Leguizamo and Favreau. Scarlett Johansson continues to have a very strong year in a few nice scenes. Dustin Hoffman shares some great back and forth moments with Favreau, and in a refreshingly quieter turn Sofia Vergara gives some depth to the token divorced wife that lectures her time-consumed ex on needing to be there more for their kid.
Going sans Iron Man suit, Robert Downey, Jr. nearly steals the entire film in just the few minutes that he’s in. As another former ex of Inez, Marvin, who provides Carl with the food truck, Downey, Jr. is electric as a poster boy for ADHD who manages to squeeze what seems like a hundred different topics into one fluid conversation.
Chef is certainly thin when it comes to plot, and the film tries to compensate for that by throwing in some plot turns near the end that are hard to buy. That said, this is a charming, character-centered film that is a return to form for Jon Favreau. It may have a familiar feel, but the great food, infectious soundtrack, sharp writing and uniformly fantastic cast that inhabit the vibrant characters make up for it. Think of it as a movie version of comfort food.
Now if you excuse me, I’m gonna go whip up some Ramen noodles.
I give Chef a B+ (★★★).