With his latest, Jon Favreau accomplishes something all but unprecedented in movie history. He convinces us the schlub he plays could’ve snagged Sofia Vergara. I kid (she plays his character’s ex). What he’s done that’s amazing is escape the Hollywood trap.
Like many before him, Favreau made his name by writing and/or directing independent films of striking originality (Swingers, 1996 and Made, 2001) and, like many before him, learned the payoff for innovation is the chance to do big formulaic fare for big bucks.
Which he did well enough for a while. If you’re going to go mainstream, you could do worse than Elf (2003) and the first two Iron Man films (2008 and 2010). Then in 2012 Favreau took stock. He was making money. But he no longer was money.
He’d jumped the shark both behind and in front of the camera, having particpated that year in the bloated bomb John Carter and watching Cowboys & Aliens ride into the sunset with a 44% Rotten Tomatoes rating and the worst reviews of his career. Most entertainment professionals who find themselves in this position summon the courage to go on doing mediocre, insanely well paying work but, to Favreau’s credit, he went a different way.
He regrouped and got small again. Not only did he return to his character and dialogue-driven roots, he managed to tell the story of a fictitious foodie superstar that serves as a metaphor for his own. It’s one of the most remarkable filmmaking feats I’ve witnessed.
Early on in Chef, Favreau’s character, Carl, storms out of the L.A. restaurant he’s devoted his life to for years. His hunger for fame has cost him his marriage and made him a virtual stranger to his 11-year-old son (Emjay Anthony). The catalyst for this life-changing move is a scathing review by an influential blogger played by Oliver Platt. When Carl confronts the critic and unloads about how much his words can hurt a person who cares about his art, it’s hard not to hear his rant as more than a plot-propelling device.
Carl realizes he’s got to start over and rediscover his gastro-passion. On a trip to Miami he falls in love with Cuban sandwiches and acquires a beaten up food truck. Father and son grow close over its refurbishing and the showing of the food prep ropes, before they are joined by a line cook (John Leguizamo) who previously worked with Carl. They christen their eatery-on-wheels Cubanos and decide to test market the concept on the drive home.
The movie proves an inspired combination of ingredients. The score’s a blend of New Orleans funk and white hot salsa. At a stop in Austin, the truck winds up across the street from an outdoor Gary Clark concert-and not even near the city limits. Later they detour into Food Network territory and pay their respects at Aaron Franklin’s legendary barbecue house of worship. Favreau must’ve shot in Scrumptiovision because, when someone savors a strip of freshly roasted meat or a sandwich sizzles on an oven, you’ll swear you can taste it.
Leisurely paced, filled with great, unforced dialogue and wall to wall with comic scenes improvised so masterfully they seem polished, Chef is a one-of-a-kind celebration of friendship, the bond between father and son, and fresh starts. It’s a return to form deserving of a place alongside culinary classics like Big Night and Babette’s Feast. I don’t want to give away much more of the story but I will give a piece of advice: If you’re planning to do dinner and a movie, do the movie first. You’ll thank me.
Also, bring a hanky. There will be drool.