There are some movies that feel personal because of the relationship the writer, director or actors have to the material. 'Chef' -- written, directed and starring Jon Favreau -- doesn't just feel personal, it feels like it's ripped directly from the pages of Favreau's subconscious diary. While it's a charming enough indie film about the connection between professional and personal passions that also serves as a fascinating look inside the psychology of a major Hollywood director.
In the film, Favreau plays Chef Carl Casper, a well-respected chef who was once the darling of the foodie scene. Critics and customers both loved his work, but when he's recruited from Miami to run a prominent Los Angeles restaurant, things begin to change. His owner (Dustin Hoffman) asks him to compromise to appeal to a wider customer base, and Chef Carl ultimately quits his job and wonders what the heck he's going to do with his life. That, it turns out, is to launch a food truck with his sous chef (John Leguizamo) and the son with whom he doesn't spend much time. While rekindling his love for food and cooking, he also rekindles his love for his kid and his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara).
The film works on this one level, which is a fairly standard "How Chef Carl Got His Groove Back" reinvention story. Taken on this level, the film is enjoyable, coasting on the inherent charm of Favreau as an actor and his chemistry with Leguizamo and Emjay Anthony, who plays his young son. He's spent so much of the past few years working behind the camera, it's easy to forget why Favreau in the first place: his lovable lug persona introduced back in 'Swingers.' Favreau is a gifted comic actor and he breezes through his scenes here with effortless charm, even when his character is being a shitty, oblivious dad. (Favreau is only upstaged by Robert Downey, Jr., whose brief cameo as Casper's food truck financier reminds us why Downey, Jr. is one of the most charismatic actors in Hollywood.)
But, there is a second, more fascinating level to 'Chef' where it works as a not-so-thinly veiled metaphor for both itself and Favreau's career including the creative disappointments of 'Iron Man 2' and 'Cowboys & Aliens.'
Favreau is mostly playing himself in the film, with cooking standing in for the process of making movies. At his "Hollywood job" he has a boss concerned with the bottom line, wanting to cater the product to a lower common denominator and Hoffman plays the role like a studio executive. Casper reluctantly lets himself be steamrolled by the people in control of the money and sacrifices his creativity, leading to critics savaging his work.
There's one scene in the film where Casper invites a prominent food critic back to his restaurant after a particularly scathing review and unloads on him in the dining room. "Do you have any idea how much that hurt?!" he seethes, squeezing a chocolate lava cake between his fingers until it runs down his arm. It's Favreau's best work in the film, partly because he does blustery, comic anger so well, but also because it's real emotion, some of the wounds clearly still fresh. It's wish-fulfillment for Favreau, who finally gets to say everything to every critic who ever ripped on 'Iron Man 2' or 'Cowboys' without saying it to their faces.
If it sounds unbearable to hear yet another filmmaker lashing back at movie critics through his work (remember M. Night Shyamalan's 'Lady in the Water'?), Favreau plays the character with enough sympathy to make it work, though the film is curiously lacking any self-introspection admitting that the critiqued work maybe just wasn't that good.
Watching the film from this angle is like eavesdropping on an extended therapy session. It's at times uncomfortable, at other times cathartic, especially when Casper begins to rekindle his love for cooking. It's not hard to see Favreau's own love for filmmaking return in these scenes, bleeding through onto the screen and through his character.
If 'Chef' is partly a metaphor for indie filmmaking, one of the film's faults is presenting very few (if any) obstacles to Casper's food truck success. The road to making an independent movie -- whether it be 'Swingers' or 'Chef' -- is one filled with ups and downs and twists and turns (see the 'Chef' financing lawsuit), and to gloss over that here leaves the film without much conflict in its third act. The ending, which arrives abruptly, is particularly frustrating both in its execution and its creative meaning.
On a technical level, the film is shot impeccably by Kramer Morgenthau ('Thor: The Dark World'), with food porn montages that can make even a grilled cheese sandwich look amazing. (Warning: do not see this movie on an empty stomach.)
'Chef' is to Favreau what the food truck is to Chef Carl Casper; an attempt to return to his roots to reignite a love for his craft and professionally reboot. Both Casper and Favreau succeed in their goals, but the question lingers: where do they go from here?
'Chef' opens in theaters on May 9, 2014.
Mike Sampson is the Editor-in-Chief of ScreenCrush.com