|UK Release Date||27th June 2014|
|Starring||A Lot of Food|
|Reviewed||23rd June 2014|
Remember Swingers? Of course you do, that film rocked. Written by Jon Favreau the best part of twenty years ago it launched the permanently affable actor / writer / director / producer into the big time. Elf, two Iron Mans (Men?) and <cough> Cowboys & Aliens later, Favreau has returned to low budget, effects free movies. Well, low budget if you can afford to pay Robert Downey Jnr. for a cameo anyhow.
Chef finds Favreau’s chef Carl Casper at something of a crossroads. Once an avant garde cook who pushed boundaries with his food creations, he has settled in somewhat to a man-child like existence working for by the numbers restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman). Divorced from his obscenely hot wife Inez (Sopfia Vergara), Carl spends his time bedding front of house manager Molly (Scarlett Johansson) and consistently letting his son down by prioritising work commitments. When Oliver Platt’s scabrous food critic Ramsey Michel visits Riva’s restaurant and Carl is forced to serve the same old food to him, the results are predictable. One gigantic, social media infused meltdown later, Carl is out on his ear and facing up to a life of confusing decisions and disarray. Not that it was arrayed very well in the first place but at least it had the semblance of being his disarray.
Inez persuades Carl to follow his long shelved dream of working for himself by packing him off to see her ex, RDJ’s wealthy lunatic Marvin. Marvin stumps up a wonderfully decrepit sandwich van and soon Carl, son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) are fixing it up and heading out on the road trip of a lifetime. Along the way bonds are formed, food is cooked and bridges are built.
If any of the above sounds broadly familiar, that’s because it most certainly is. Any number of movies have trodden a very similar path with other devices dropped in in place of food and most will have come out at exactly the same place as this one. Chef manages to clear this familiarity though by being utterly likeable, entirely affable and consistently funny. It is also an absolute joy for anyone who loves food. Well, a joy if you didn’t turn up to the screening hungry. If you turn up with an empty stomach, this could be the longest 114 minutes of your life.
Favreau trained up as an actual chef for the role (a bit like Christian Bale does for movies, but I suspect having a lot more fun doing it) so all the culinary panache on show is genuine and boy does it show. Meat is fried and slow roasted, onions sizzle, cheese melts luxuriously... honestly at times this is like a hyped up Marks & Spencers advert but with no discernible product placement. Just sitting watching Carl and Martin cook is a joy to behold. Favreau and Leguizamo share a wonderfully easy going on screen chemistry and even the addition of a cute kid doesn’t sour the mood - Anthony fits in seamlessly with the grown ups.
In fact, it’s very difficult to imagine any other actor enjoying the central role quite as much. Resplendent in a wide array of chef themed tattoos, Favreau is just overweight enough and just alpha male enough to almost convince you that he’d married Inez and his consistent charm means you never really wonder too much about how it all went so badly wrong for him. Robert Downey Jnr as ever threatens to steal the show as the wild eyed, obsessive compulsive benefactor - jammed to the hilt with jittery energy and brilliantly off kilter non-sequiturs and Platt’s Michel begins as a stereotyped vicious food critic (his demolition of Carl is pretty funny) but even he manages to pull it back come the end.
And there we have the only real criticism that can be levelled at this movie. It’s all just a little too nice, a little too well packaged and a little too neat. If you dwell on the details too long, you’d invariably come to the conclusion that you’ve seen and heard all this before. But that would be missing the point. Favreau isn’t looking to create anything deep and meaningful here, Chef is a wonderfully full fat love letter to food and to family. Swerving too much sugar (possibly the only healthy element of this menu), Carl’s road trip takes him to a redemption of sorts with his kid (who to be honest, looked like he was dealing with his errant father pretty well to start with) but far more importantly gives him a new vigour for his life. It’s unlikely that the movie will do the same for you but it will absolutely make you grin from ear to ear on the way out of the screening and if you don’t head straight for fried food of some sort on the way home, well, you’re no food friend of mine. Oh, and on a serious note, I’m not kidding about watching this on a empty stomach, for the love of all that is cheesy, feed yourself before you go in. You’ve been warned.
Check out the trailer here.