Jon Favreau’s career began in 1996 when he wrote a movie based on the experiences of he and his best buddies, who were all up and coming actors meandering around the L.A. night scene. Director Doug Liman sent the script to studios, and they wanted to finance it, but when Liman insisted on casting the writer and his friends, they changed their minds. The money was raised independently, and for $200,000 they made Swingers, which went on to make over $4 million. It also launched the careers of Favreau, his best friend Vince Vaughn, their friend Ron Livingston, and others.
Since then, Favreau has gone on to write and direct other movies. Most notable is Elf (one of the best Christmas movies ever), Made (starring Sean Combs – yes, that Sean Combs), and Cowboys & Aliens (a movie with two lead actors so grumpy, you don’t care about any of the characters). You can also make a case for him being responsible for the current state of excellence in the Marvel cinematic universe, as he directed Iron Man, and was the one who wanted Robert Downey Jr. to play Tony Stark. RDJ’s charisma and the success of that movie allowed Marvel to build their multi-phased plan to create the most entertaining movies ever. While loving that, Favreau wanted to ‘get back to his roots’; and write and direct something a little smaller.
Chef is the story of Chef Carl Casper, who is too busy running the kitchen at a big time L.A. restaurant to notice that he is not spending enough quality time with his son, Percy, and that he doesn’t really know him. He has his buddies in the kitchen, and an on-again off-again relationship with the maître-d, Molly. He cooks because it’s his passion and his love. He creates amazing dishes in the kitchen; however, he encounters a roadblock in the domineering restaurant owner, Riva. When finding out that a major food critic is coming to the restaurant, Carl prepares an astounding and daring menu for him, but Riva insists on using the same menu they have always used. This backfires, and the critic writes a horrible and mean review that personally attacks Carl – who used to be inspired. Carl gets upset upon learning from his friends and son that the review has gone viral, and takes to twitter to demand a re-match – asking the critic to come back in. He again prepares a fantastic menu – but due to the twitter hype, the restaurant has more reservations than it has ever had, and Riva again insists on the same menu. Carl walks out – the critic again blasts Carl personally. Carl comes to the restaurant and loses it very publically at the critic, which of course, goes viral as well.
Feeling lost, Carl agrees to go on a trip with his ex-wife and son to Miami to see her father. While there, they go to restaurant, and she Inceptions him into agreeing to get a food truck from her first ex-husband to be able to cook what he wants and how he wants. He, Percy, and his buddy/sous chef, Martin set out across the country, stopping here and there, teaching Percy to become an amazing line cook, and bonding on the way. Percy uses twitter to promote the truck, so by the time they hit L.A., they are a huge success. The critic comes by to eat and talk with Carl, and offers to partner with him on a restaurant of his own. Bam – happy ending, a simple story, but the joy is in the cast and the execution.
- This is the first time Jon Favreau has starred in a movie. We already know he's a great director of comedies with heart. He is usually a member of an ensemble, or a bit character who steals a few scenes. He is fantastic as Carl – equal parts determined, bull-headed, and lovable and lost. He does a wonderful job, especially in the non-verbal moments of just him and the son. Also – he did learn to cook for the movie, from Chef Ray Choi, who does have a food truck.
- This is also the best I have seen John Leguizamo in a long time. Probably because Favreau let him mainly just be himself. He is fast-talking, genuine, and hilarious. Martin promises to stand by Carl’s side, and when Carl is in Miami and starting over with the food-truck, Martin is literally on the next flight to be there to help him.
- Emjay Anthony plays Percy, the son, and does a great job of being quietly hurt in the beginning when his father does not have time for him, but then excited at the prospect of a cross-country trip and learning to cook. Also – the bit about him being more internet-saavy than his father is pretty accurate, and his building a crowd for the truck based solely on social media was a nice touch.
- Bobby Cannavale plays Tony, who was Carl’s sous-chef, but then gets the head chef job when Carl implodes. Cannavale has been good in multiple things for a long time, and it was nice to see him get the opportunity to cut loose a little in this.
- Scarlett Johansson plays Molly, and she really is a supportive friend for Carl when he has no clue what to do next. I also enjoyed the ‘love scene’ between them. In other movies, it would have been a drunken sex scene – in this movie, she excitedly watches while he cooks her pasta. Fantastic.
- Dustin Hoffman plays Riva, who is as close to a villain as the movie has – not counting the critic. While he’s a bit of a dick, it is easy to see where he is coming from. His menu in his restaurant has worked for the last 10 years, why change it now? I could have used one more scene where he got his comeuppance; as it stands, he gets to just quietly escort Carl out of his place. I needed one more scene where he was proven wrong, and is chagrined to see the success that Carl has cooking his own menu.
- Sofia Vergara plays Carl’s ex-wife, Inez. It’s never really explained what she does for a living, but she is wealthy as all hell. She seems to be some sort of party planner. She obviously cares for Carl and only wants to see him happy. It was nice to see her more toned down than she is on TV.
- Oliver Platt expertly plays an Oliver Platt-type as Ramsey Michel, the food critic. He has very little to do up front, but just look pompous as Carl screams at him in the middle of the restaurant. His excellence comes in the final scene when he approaches Carl to tell him how good the food truck food is, and how he always knew that was what Carl was capable of, and yes – let’s open a restaurant together.
- Amy Sedaris has a very brief cameo as the publicist who Inez hires to speak with Carl after his outburst. She’s not especially helpful, but she is fun.
- Robert Downey Jr. plays Inez’s first ex-husband, Marvin, who provides Carl with the food truck. The reality is that he probably worked one day on this movie, and that Favreau let him improvise almost the entirety of his scene, but the beauty of that is that it is one of the funniest scenes in the movie. He’s completely ridiculous, and it really works.
- The true star of this movie is the food, and I cannot emphasize enough that you should not see it on an empty stomach, unless you have plans to go out to dinner immediately after. The Cuban sandwiches look amazing, the pasta looked great, the beignets…all of it. My favorite is the grilled cheese sandwich he makes for Percy. And as a bonus, over the credits, there is a scene of Chef Ray Choi teaching Jon Favreau how to make that grilled cheese sandwich. And now I need a grilled cheese sandwich.
- It is also important to point out the music in this. If you’ve seen either Swingers or Made, you know how big the music is in a Favreau movie. I still play the Swingers soundtrack in my car, because it’s awesome. I ordered the soundtrack to this the day after I saw the movie – it is excellent, and there is a great scene of Gary Clark Jr. playing as the food truck stops in Austin.
This movie is easily my biggest surprise hit of the year, and mostly because I wasn’t a huge fan of Swingers, or Made. They both felt a little pretentious to me (Favreau can come off as a pretentious filmmaker from time to time), and I wasn’t sure I would like this. This movie is very straightforward, with a simple story, but with excellent execution – and sometimes, that’s all you need. It is still playing with a limited release, but make the effort to go see it – it’s well worth it. I saw it in a packed theater, and the audience applauded after it was over. Sometimes you just need a hilarious, touching story with a supremely happy ending.
9 out of 10 – Gained big points for RDJ, he almost stole the whole movie. Lost points for not getting to see Hoffman’s character get what was coming to him. Gained points for Leguizamo being Leguizamo. Lost points for the over-use of Twitter, but honestly, that was half the story. Gained points for the food – all the amazing food. This movie needs an accompanying cookbook.
Bonus Video 1: Chocolat – the other movie that makes me hungry.
Bonus Video 2: The Hundred-Foot Journey. An upcoming movie based on a book that looks like it will make me hungry.
Bonus Video 3: Four Christmases – the movies not that good, but it’s almost worth it for the one scene with Favreau…
…same thing for the movie Couples Retreat. If you rent either of them, you can fast forward through the nonsense.