John Favreau is the quintessential Hollywood Cinderella story. As an actor, he was frustrated with the small roles he was getting, so he took the bull by the horns, co-wrote dream roles for himself and Vince Vaughn in Swingers and became a movie star. That wasn’t enough, so he flexed his directorial muscles on little oddities until he got behind the camera on the massive Iron Man. Now, a decade or two later, he’s combining the lot. The small, character based stories of his early years, with the free directorial autonomy and all star case of his later years, in Chef.
10 years ago, Carl Casper (Favreau) was the hottest, limit pushing chef in Los Angeles, raved about by food critic Ramsay Michel (Oliver Platt). Today, he has a prestige restaurant at his disposal, owned by Dustin Hoffman’s Riva, complete with Scarlett Johansen as the world’s hottest hostess, Molly. When Ramsay Michel returns, his scathing review paints Carl as a boring has been. A half assed social media lesson from his son leads to a very public, online breakdown from Carl, before a real life break down sees him unemployed.
With nothing more to do than agonise over his failures as a chef and a father, Carl ends up in Miami, talking possession of a rundown food truck. Now it’s a cross country road trip, taking the truck back to LA, with his son (Emjay Amthony) and best friend (John Leguizamo as fellow chef Martin) in tow. And maybe Carl will learn a thing or two about being a father along the way, while also rediscovering the love for food and creativity that lead him to becoming a chef in the first place.
Chef is small, but that’s one of its greatest strengths. There’s no cataclysmic, world disaster or millions of lives at stake. But what is at stake, is the small, personal life of one man. What Favreau gets right, is making that small, personal life believable and relatable. Compared to things like Guardians of the Galaxy and Edge of Tomorrow, everything about Chef is inconsequential and mundane. But the characters are so real, and so believable, it’s impossible to not get as invested in their own everyday lives as you do with the world ending events of the biggest blockbuster.
Chef is clichéd, but that’s its other great strength. This is a redemption story you’ve seen plenty of times before. Professional redemption as Carl discovers the passion that lead him to becoming a chef in the first place. Personal redemption as he learns to be a better father. But all the time and effort saved by sticking to a by the numbers plot, is used to amazing effect by fleshing out the characters, making you care about their desires, their actions, their failures and victories.
John Favreau is a film making every man. The comic nerds loved him when he’d show up at Comic Con to promote the Iron Man movies. The indie nerds loved him back in the day when he co-wrote and starred in Swingers. But Chef makes me think he might not be that everyman anymore. When he writes jokes in the screenplay about letting himself go, but then decides to cast Sofia Vergara as is ex, and Scarlett Johansen as his current love interest, he might be one Hollywood player who has lost just a little of his everyman perspective.
Chef is sweet and sentimental and never shies away from the exact heart strings it’s trying to pull at any particular moment. And when a movie wears its heart on its sleeve as unashamedly as this, all of that is just fine. John Favreau’s obvious affection for this story permeates his character in a way that makes him impossible not to like. The story of Chef might not surprise you, but its infectiousness will.