It is very tempting to begin this review with a food pun: to speak about how tastefully done or how flavorful the film is. But while certain elements of the film were certainly tasteful, the film as a whole was just bland. And despite its name, Chef is less about the experience of being a chef and more about two very broad groundbreaking themes: “Be the person who you want to be” and “Family is always important.”
Chef, the comedy-drama written and directed by John Favreau, works well as a heartwarming tale in some respects but also falls short in others. Favreau plays the protagonist Carl Caspar, an acclaimed chef who quits his job at a restaurant to begin anew, on his own terms. Caspar fixes up a food truck with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), and together they travel cross-country selling Cuban Sandwiches. It is difficult not to read the film’s unsubtle impatience with “cooking what the manager wants” in relation to Favreau’s own career working on bigger Hollywood projects such as Iron Man.
Favreau’s not so subtle commentary on entertainment and social media is an integral part of the film’s humor. In one of Chef’s most comical scenes, Caspar loses his temper at a cold-hearted food critic who might just as well be a cold-hearted film critic. Periodically, Favreau also remarks on either the power of social media or adults’ ineptness at using Twitter. While these attempts at commentary are admirable, they lack nuance and, frankly, feel outdated.
As a director, Favreau has a deft, experienced hand. He isn’t afraid to linger on a shot, whether it is a gorgeous, crisp image of vegetables or a raw, emotion-filled character close-up. He takes care to give attention to details, to let a scene sink in. Caspar and his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergarez) take their son dancing. They dance the salsa to the lively music in the background, smiles wide on their faces. The camera pans to their son staring up at them, his eyes shining. The red lighting and the out-of-focus background create a red dreamlike haze around the boy as he watches his parents sway back and forth to the music.
Favreau’s portrayal of Caspar is spot-on. He can be stubborn, funny, over the top, but also show reserve during emotional moments with his son. The other characters in the film unfortunately are much less developed, defined only through their relationship to Caspar: his wife, his son, his friend. This is in some ways understandable – the film is told through Caspar’s point of view. Nevertheless, because the character interactions play such an integral part in the story, the lack of dimension is noticeable.
And here we come to the film’s greatest strength, which is also its biggest weakness. In a film world full of melodrama, the directness and authenticity of each character is refreshing. In another movie, Casper and his ex-wife would be uncomfortable or angry with one another. Here, they have an amiable relationship. But although the characters are sweet and charming, their actions lack gravitas. This film clearly is a very personal journey for Favreau and for the character he plays. But we never feel from either one a strong sense of urgency since Casper never meets any real resistance or any real challenges.
Whatever Casper’s actions, all of the surrounding characters support him regardless. After he quits his job, his ex-wife flies him to Miami and helps him get a food truck. When he begins traveling on the food truck, a large crowd of customers immediately assembles. He doesn’t spend enough time with Percy, but his improbably mature ten-year old son never complains and always welcomes him back with open arms.
The problem is we never doubt that Caspar is going to succeed. And when he does finally get his happy ending and the upbeat music begins playing, we don’t feel joyous and uplifted, just indifferent. Chef aspires to be a critique of the bland entertainment dished out by Hollywood these days. Ultimately however it ends up serving its own colorful but only mildly appetizing fare.
An enjoyable, feel-good family story. Nothing more.