Chef written and directed by Jon Favreau and starring Jon Favreau with John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr. and Oliver Platt enjoyed its New York Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Heineken Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. Actor Bobby Cannavale (who plays Tony, Favreau’s buddy cook), accepted the award for Mr. Favreau who said upon hearing that his film was the favorite, “I am so grateful just to be a part of this prestigious festival, and to be recognized and honored by the audience of my hometown is truly humbling.”
Chef resonated with festival audiences because of Favreau’s humorous, sharp dialogue and the fine cast who toss and twirl the one liners like expert pizza dough makers. The plot embraces “the little people,” their homely values, the importance of togetherness in family, the ethics of hard work and the need to solidify integrity by embracing one’s passions and talents. The film pokes fun at the power of social media and the peril of ignoring its proper place in business and self-promotion. Finally, its broad appeal may also be found in the protagonist’s whimsical, adventuresome bravado, once he frees himself from his slave-choking job which has nullified his spirit, talent and creativity. In short, Favreau has created empathetic, lovable characters, human situations and everyday conflicts. As a result the overall effect is palatable and nutritious. This is a light-hearted, feel-good, fun film. Though one may assume “deep” is not its mission, the indie is deceptive. It is not as superficial as one might deem and its metaphoric parallels to Favreau’s film career are interesting to note. But they not vital to the enjoyment of the film.
Favreau portrays Carl Casper who is but a shadow of his former ingenious and creative gourmet chef- foodie-self; he has lost his edge and is stifled in his current position as chef in a high end restaurant in LA, though he manages to earn enough money for child support and his moderate lifestyle. Unable to afford his own glorious restaurant and create delectable food porn the way he dreams (and does in a few gorgeous segments), he has allowed his energy to be sucked dry by the profit-driven restauranteur Riva (imminently watchable Dustin Hoffman), who demands that the menu be what the patrons expect, not what the chef wishes to innovate. Casper has sacrificed his passion for a paycheck and his family life and relationship with his son for a career that has been dead ended in boredom. He has come to the end of himself, and appears to be considering what his estranged wife (Sofia Vergara) is suggesting, getting a food truck and going on the road to cook some down home food that the regular folks will enjoy.
The conflict sizzles and flames when Casper unwittingly sends a public message via Twitter to a respected and reputable food blogger, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), who dissed a recent foodie performance with a rotten review. Casper pridefully challenges Michel to return to sample an innovative and novel menu unbeknownst to Riva who has not sanctioned this unique culinary repast. Riva nixes Casper’s sumptuous menu and orders him to stay with the “tried and true” or open his own place. Casper wilts, the food sucks, Michel calls his bluff to his face and provokes Casper who wildly answers by shredding the notion of the need for “the critic.” Who but a “critic” would destroy the working man’s soul while doing nothing productive but be a sadist who arrogantly secretes negativity? The Casper “explosion” is uploaded on Youtube. It goes viral and Casper, unaware of how to stem the tide of tweets and social media villainy, has a moment of Riva rebellion and quits in fury. After his son and fellow cooks define the promotional importance of Twitter, Youtube, et. al. Casper realizes his global reputation is now worm poo. Who will hire this foodie miscreant who cannot be managed online?
The grace of the film is how Casper, his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), and buddy Martin (John Leguizamo), following Inez’s suggestion, take a refurbished food truck on the road and travel from Miami, to New Orleans, to Austin, and back to LA. On their road adventure they see the real America, experience its people and share the foods that make it great. They rediscover their inner core, invent a new path and define what they love in themselves and each other. During the process, Casper strengthens his relationship with his son and is able to recognize the importance of his family as a part of his being. The ending peaks in a justification that all Casper has been through is worth it for what he has learned and the priceless treasure that has been added to his life.
If these themes appear light, they are; as light as air and as necessary as breath is to life. Favreau, his team and the talented cast have melded together the highlights of what is trending with verities that are immutable and inexorable. The combination is paradoxical; the effect is very real.
A note about the Heineken audience award Favreau received. The award came with a cash prize of $25,000 and as a part of the Tribeca Film Festival Artists Awards program sponsored by Chanel, Favreau received the painting Untitled by James Nares. Jon Favreau is donating the money to City Harvest, the world’s first food rescue organization dedicated to feeding New York City’s hungry men, women and children. City Harvest is a charity that Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin supports.
Chef will be released by Open Road Films on May 9th.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B000LQAMPG,B00JLYQ3MK]