Chef: SXSW Review

Courtesy of Open Road Films

Jon Favreau gets personal again in a film about a chef whipping his life back together.

AUSTIN — A small-scale personal-growth comedy from a filmmaker recently known for SFX blockbusters, Jon Favreau‘s Chef enlists a top-shelf cast for a film as earnestly emotional as Swingers and his family-centric adventure Zathura. The story, revolving around food but really concerned with any sort of personal creative drive, may lack the ingredients of a mainstream comic hit; but audiences drawn in by its franchise-worthy cast will likely respond warmly.

It wouldn’t take much effort to parse this film’s back-to-your-roots storyline as a response to the critical and commercial failure of Favreau’s last big outing, 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens. Here, the director plays a gifted chef, Carl Casper, who has been bullied into churning out safe food by the owner of his restaurant (Dustin Hoffman) even though what he really wants to do is experiment. When an influential critic trashes that safe menu, the once-celebrated chef melts down, discovering at the wrong moment what damage Twitter and smart-phone cameras can do to a career. In an outburst that many filmmakers will identify with, he publicly accosts a critic whose sole purpose is to “shit on my shit.”

Suddenly fired and unemployable, the divorced dad is convinced by his wealthy ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) to accompany her to Miami and help watch their son Percy (Emjay Anthony). But she has other motives, and is pushing Carl toward cooking the kind of food he cares about, even if it means releasing his food with a small distributor like Open Road instead of Universal Pictures — wait, scratch that — even if it means using a beat-up food truck as his test kitchen.

Oliver Platt (excellently) plays the critic who sets all this in action. Anyone savvy enough about the food world to make that in-joke — Platt’s brother Adam is the influential food critic at New York magazine — should be able to avoid some needless eyebrow-raising elements in the restaurant-world premise: The story begins on a morning that is very stressful for Carl because he knows L.A.’s most influential food writer is coming to review his restaurant — but  everyone knows that surprise attacks are a serious critic’s M.O. Then, just before the fateful dinner hour, Carl walks into his kitchen intending to have his underlings whip out a whole array of dishes they’ve never seen, instead of the menu they’ve honed for years. (Later, the review will take Carl to task even for the dessert course, as if a restaurant of this caliber didn’t employ a separate pastry chef.)

If these plot points seem unlikely, the film does better in depicting an atmosphere of masculine camaraderie in the kitchen — it would be hard not to, with Bobby Cannavale playing Carl’s sous chef and Jon Leguizamo as a trusted line cook. Scarlett Johansson is the front-of-house knockout, a sometimes-lover who just wants to see Carl happy.

Social media does Carl as much good as it did harm once he decides, having reconnected with local culture in Miami, that he should start a truck selling Cubano sandwiches. Restoring a piece-of-junk taco truck (a gift from his ex-wife’s ex-husband, Robert Downey, Jr.) is a job tailor made for getting to know his son again, and 10 year-old Percy does some Twitter jujitsu to exploit @ChefCarl’s notoriety once they’re ready to sell some pressed sandwiches. An enjoyable road trip ensues, with father and son recruiting Leguizamo to hit New Orleans and Austin on the way home to Los Angeles. (An Austin cameo from Franklin Barbecue genius Aaron Franklin drew cheers from this hometown crowd, and the sight of four perfect briskets inspired some sighs.)

The growing bond between this man and his son is as enjoyable as it is predictable, with Percy diligently learning how to work in a kitchen and Dad imparting lessons about the pride to be taken in perfection, even of a humble sandwich. Laughs are frequent enough to dilute any sentimentality, though (as in Amy Sedaris‘s brief appearance, which proves she was born to play an over-tanned power publicist), and a soundtrack full of Latin beats and New Orleans grooves (with a Lone Star blues break starring Gary Clark Jr.) keep things moving along nicely. If the final scenes dispel with any lingering bad vibes in a much too-tidy way, viewers drunk on food-porn shots of melting cheese and frying beignets are unlikely to complain.

Production Company: Fairview Entertainment

Cast: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Amy Sedaris

Director-Screenwriter: Jon Favreau

Producers: Jon Favreau, Sergei Bespalov

Executive producers: Karen Gilchrist, Molly Allen, Mark C. Manuel, Ted O’Neal, Gleb Fetisov, Oleg Teterin, Marina Bespalov, James D. Brubaker, Jere Hausfater, Philip Elway, Tim Smith, Paul Brett, Anne Sheehan, Jerry Fruchtman, Peter Fruchtman, Craig Chapman, Boris Teterev, Scott Steindorff, Dylan Russell, Jason Rose

Director of photography: Kramer Morgenthau

Production designer: Denise Pizzini

Costume designer: Laura Jean Shannon

Editor: Robert Leighton