Thursday, July 17, 2014

Movie Review: "Chef" whets appetite for life

In an alternate universe, there’s a version of me scurrying around a film set, directing actors, looking over script sheets, and conferring with cinematographers and producers. In yet another, I’m whirling around a busy restaurant kitchen, chiming “oui, chef!” while methodically chopping, stirring, braising, and plating. Thus--since I am in neither universe--I hold a special spot in my heart for films about food, because they combine two things I truly love.

Chef, Jon Favreau’s newest feature, is my latest obsession. It’s an upbeat story about a frustrated chef who finds a new passion for his cuisine—and his family life—when he buys a food truck.

Plot: Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) was once the toast of the culinary world, but is now trapped in a creative rut. He’s just as stuck in his personal life, recently divorced and struggling to connect with his 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony). Carl’s frustrations reach a boiling point when he’s panned by renowned food critic Ramsey Michael (Oliver Platt), and Carl’s public outburst goes viral on the internet.

With his career in shambles, Carl reluctantly joins his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and son on a trip to Miami, his old stomping grounds. Inspired by the city’s colorful Cuban cuisine, he buys a fixer-upper food truck. When his right-hand-man, Tony (John Leguizamo) flies out to help with Carl’s new endeavor, Carl, Tony, and Percy embark on a road trip across the US to get the truck back to LA.

Review: This is the perfect recipe for a feel-good movie: flawed-yet-lovable characters, a lively soundtrack, and gorgeous, lingering shots of lovingly prepared food. It’s obvious that Favreau (who also produced, directed, and wrote the film) did his homework to become Chef Casper, and he moves in the kitchen as organically as a dancer does on a stage.

Aside from the all the delicious food, what struck me the most about this film was the father-son dynamic at the heart of the story. Percy aches to be part of his dad’s life, but Carl is too wrapped up in his career (and misery) to see the clever young man Percy is becoming. When Carl agrees to let Percy come with him on the road-trip, not only do the two bond, but Percy proves himself as a valuable member of the team with his social media savvy.

And--odd as this sounds--it was nice to see a movie that was so intrinsically about men and male camaraderie that had nothing to do with violence or macho posturing. Carl and Tony work easily as a team in the food truck, and Percy’s initiation into their world--and into manhood--is filled with heart as well as humor and hard work.

The only complaint I had was the neat way everything came together in the end. Perhaps Favreau saw Carl’s journey as a father as the major arc of the film, but I wanted to see a little more conflict with the food truck and his career trajectory. The ending was just a bit too--dare I say it--Dinsey-eque, but maybe I'm just a little too jaded.

Overall, Chef is not a complex film, but it is a delicious one. In a summer filled with vacant popcorn flicks, Chef is like a hearty grilled sandwich: tasty, filling, and simple. Worth a watch, but make sure you’re not hungry going into the theater!

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