One of the problem with vanity projects is that, in the end, they tend to be mostly about vanity. For almost all of his career, I have been a big fan of Jon Favreau’s work both in front of and behind the camera. Favreau is a character actor. It may sound bitchy, and believe me I am willing to own it, but there are some actors regardless of gender, who are just not leading material. It has not so much to do with looks than it does presence. A bearing. A manner. Even in indie films, quirky films, even that hideous French guy from HOLY MOTORS (Denis Lavant) has all that and more, but unfortunately in my opinion, Favreau does not. What he does possess is good screenwriting ability, a decent sense of humor and he is a skilled director of high energy and legitimately funny films (ELF, ZATHURA, IRON MAN/IRON MAN 2, & COWBOYS AND ALIENS). I have enjoyed his numerous cameos in all variety of films and frankly he should stick to that in front of the camera. Do I find irony in the fact that I am basically giving his film a review which is wildly similar to the poor review in the film that his character Chef Carl Casper receives? Yes. Sadly that is irony which I don’t want to be a part of but have to call it like it is.
CHEF is very good at two things: making you very very hungry, and learning what Jon Favreau likes to eat and music he enjoys. CHEF features some of the most beautifully filmed sumptuous food porn I have possibly ever seen. Juicy, tender pink cutlets and sensuous fruits made into slippery sauces, shining caramelized sugar, dripping meaty…I digress. There is an inherent sensuousness to great cooking and food in general and there is a scene in CHEF bursting with possibility and the breathlessly sensuous Scarlet Johanssen which is meant to be deeply sensual. She clearly gets it – and gives it – but Favreau cannot deliver despite his best efforts. Worthy of praise for sure is CHEF’s supporting cast. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannevale are not only believable in their own right, presenting the warped reality of most kitchen staff with their high octane personalities, but they are a great buddy couple. Their timing and interplay works wonderfully and they are one of the most enjoyable elements of the film. Scarlett Johannssen is a powerful and beautiful front-of-the-house manager and token female hottie in the sea of overbearing male presences. Sophia Vergara is stunning and likeable in her role as Casper’s ex-wife with whom he has unresolved issues, and Emjay Anthony does a great job as Casper’s son who is at the magical junction of old enough to be the most internet saavy guy in the room yet boyish enough to be emotionally vulnerable. The highly feared and tide turning food critic Ramsey Michel is played to perfection by the talented Oliver Platt. Add in Dustin Hoffman as the fascistic restaurant owner and the Robert Downey Jr. as a magnate and you have a cast which serves primarily to demonstrate just how tragically lacking Favreau is as a leading man. Favreau comes off as a overly sensitive, insecure and needy boy like the only male in an all girls home-ec class. Chefs tend to be powerful and commanding, not desperate for reassurance and childishly petulant. He is not believable as a father, as a star chef, an artist and , in a story which at its heart is about creativity, destruction and transformation, did not inspire an ounce of sympathy from me. We want to pull for Chef Casper, to champion him, but really I wanted to slap him.
CHEF has some good laughs and some great scenery. The first part of the film, which takes place in the restaurant responsible for Chef Casper’s social media annihilation, is tight and well written. With it’s commercail kitchen mini-society and lines such as, ‘You’re trending Bro,’ we can feel the impending doom which serves as the story’s turning point. It is however when CHEF leaves the restaurant and, literally, jumps on the open road that the film unravels. What should be brazen, enthusiastic and free spirited, is instead uneven, plodding, and interminable. We know what’s coming – just bring it on already! Chef Casper does his best to engage his son and make us feel that there is bondong going on, but he is utterly inauthentic as a father, even one who has been conspicuously and injuriously absent too much of the time. It seemed as though Favreau was trying to emulate Tony Soprano’ s parenting style and it bombs. Emjay Anthony shows real nuance as Percy his son but it plays against the dull edge of Favreau’s father role. Expectations can be dangerous things and maybe watching CHEF for its scenery and food, supporting cast and some good laughs is enough. Maybe not. It wasn’t for me. But I have a great idea: In a twist on the usual path, Let’ find a foreign filmmaker to remake CHEF and bring it to the broiled, glazed and juicy pinnacle of delciousness it is meant to be.
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannevale, Dustin Hoffman, Sophia Vergara, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr.
Running Time: 115 Minutes (should be 90)
Movie Review Chef