Weekend Film Recommendation: Chef

Forget drama, intrigue, and complexity; this week’s movie recommendation is filled with feel-good vibes that are sure to have you pleasantly chuckling your way into April.

Chef Carl Casper, played by Jon Favreau, is a darn good cook, despite what his uncanny resemblance to Guy Fieri might suggest. Or, rather, he might still be a good cook, but too much time has gone by in the employ of the unimaginative restaurateur Riva, played by Dustin Hoffman, for anyone to know at this point. Chef Casper has spent so long peddling the same dishes that were a hit back during the time when he was the hot new talent, that the game is drying up: people have gotten so used to Casper’s shtick that even he is beginning to wonder whether he’s still ‘got it.’ Thankfully, word gets around that Casper’s restaurant is about to be visited by the widely acclaimed food critic Ramsey Michel (played by Oliver Platt), and Casper sets to work throwing together what looks to be a dazzling array of new delicacies. Riva has other ideas, however, and sends Casper packing when their artistic differences over the intended new menu come to a head.

Casper isn’t only losing grasp of his career. He also seems to have lost touch with Percy, his son from a failed marriage to Inez (played by Sofia Vergara). At Inez’s suggestion, Casper flies out to Miami, repurposes a food truck, and begins his career anew – and he brings Percy along for the ride back across the country. The hope is to cobble together both his cooking career and his family at the same time. With friends like Inez and his former sous-chef Martin (played by John Leguizamo) at his side, how could he possibly fail?

The nature of a feel good film such as this is that you already know full well that the plan is bulletproof: any adversity is front-loaded at the outset of the film, and even then, it’s never so severe as to complicate the general mood-setting required to assure audiences that this is the film you watch for a chuckle. Casper’s conflagrations with Riva and with Ramsey are staged so as to permit humor even in what would otherwise be ‘the dark nadir’ of Casper’s character arc. That levity only amplifies as the film progresses, although the tone shifts from schadenfreude to something a little more outrightly sentimental. Along the journey, there are plenty of opportunities for Casper to impart wisdom to his son (a sandwich deserves to be made with love, even if the customers aren’t paying for it, kid) and to make amends for his past indiscretions as a father (Percy gleefully learns that not all quality time must be squeezed in between daddy’s work errands).

Don’t expect any unwelcome surprises, and do expect big name cameos (Robert Downey, Jr., Amy Sedaris, and Bobby Cannavale all make appearances) to cement the film’s tone. After all, you couldn’t possibly expect a ‘dose of reality’ in a film that features a sweaty overweight chef with a temper bedding not only Sofia Vergara but also Scarlett Johansson. The performances are adequate all around with the exception of Vergara, who reprises the same role that she studiously refuses to modify throughout her career. No matter; there’s more than enough fine music, delicious-looking food, and wisecracks to keep you distracted or engaged, depending on whichever suits the scene best.

The metaphor of the film is pretty ripe: after Favreau successfully re-injected energy into the superhero movie genre with Ironman (2008) and Ironman 2 (2010), he next directed the atrocious flop Cowboys & Aliens (2011) that justifiably had him think a little harder before stepping back into the director’s chair. The reflection has done him good. Favreau has returned to making films with the familiar and light-hearted indie vibe reminiscent of Swingers (1996), which originally put him on the map, just as Chef Casper has done by returning from the blockbuster studio of Riva’s restaurant to the indie experience of Inez’s food truck.

Watch Chef, but for heaven’s sake be sure to eat beforehand. Otherwise, the stuff they prepare will have you salivating for nearly two full hours.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.