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Director/actor Jon Favreau’s “Chef” is a movie palate cleanser
It's nice to see a simple movie during the summer—a movie with no explosions, world dominations, overt violence, CGI superheroes or Adam Sandler. A movie that focuses on telling a story, however familiar or recognizable, is always in short supply between May and August.
In general, there are few stories told. Nothing is new, only the details change. No matter how often we complain about the repetitive nature of the Hollywood movie-generating machine, stories are re-told because we find them comforting.
There might not be a more comforting story than Jon Favreau’s latest family comedy “Chef”, no matter how close it comes to a cloying and easy conclusion. I call it a family comedy in spite of the MPAA rating of “R,” which I assume was given to the film due to language. I would be far more comfortable with my children seeing this film than any of the violence-laden, sexual-innuendo-laced PG-13 films that flood the summer market.
The story is modest and sweet, and the film is excellently crafted for a broad audience...let the four-letter-word counters be damned. It is unfortunate that the only screen showing the film in the city is in the Majestic 12 Ovation Club, which has very strictly enforced age 21-plus rules, requiring ID no matter how long your beard may be. Nonetheless, it is one of the few films this summer that is truly for anyone.
The title tells enough about the film for most. The story follows a chef working at an upscale restaurant in Los Angeles. Almost immediately, we learn that Carl Casper (Favreau) is a true artist, a talented cook who is unhappy in his job due to being ruled over by a short-sighted restaurant owner (the always welcome Dustin Hoffman). After a highly volatile blow up at a food critic, which of course becomes a viral sensation, Casper finds himself out of work and untouchable.
At the behest of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), Casper travels to Miami with his 10-year-old son and opens a food truck selling Cuban sandwiches, teaching his son the trade he loves. As I said, the story is simple and easily accessible for everyone.
This isn’t edgy or complicated filmmaking. It’s an elegant and pleasant movie-going experience, one that doesn’t require edge-of-your-seat action or titillating spectacle. Its simplicity sets it apart from anything else in the theaters this summer.
Were it not for the cast Favreau was able to assemble, the film might be more easily dismissed. But the film features not just film giants like Dustin Hoffman in supporting roles, but other talented and capable actors like John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johannson, Robert Downey Jr., and Oliver Platt, each as a small but crucial part of the overall story.
Favreau has a reputation for allowing his actors to improvise, creating natural and engaging dialogue. His scenes leap out at the audience. The scene between Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. was especially sharp and funny, as finely crafted a piece of filmmaking I’ve seen this year. What the overall story may be lacking in complexity, many of the scenes more than make up for by being exceptionally well executed. Jon Favreau just makes good movies.
If there was one aspect of the film I enjoyed more than any other, it was the very brief but intelligent discussion of criticism and art. Obviously, Favreau is going to make the case for the emotional and personal investment of the artist in his work, arguing that critics are too often needlessly hurtful and damaging to their subjects, often attacking art joyfully without justification.
This is a fair criticism. Too often critics will write mean and snarky things about art simply because it’s fun and easy and readers tend to enjoy it. I’ve been guilty of it myself.
But the film also examines the other side, showing that sometimes the critics can be right, and the best criticism is the kind that can spur a once-great artist out of his comfortable space and back into the difficult world of creating. This critic/artist relationship is brief in the film, but rich and only serves to enhance the overall narrative.
In all, “Chef” is a good film. That’s all it needs to be. It serves well as a combo breaker for the summer blockbusters. It’s certainly worth seeing.
Just make sure not to forget your ID or the Majestic won’t let you in.