Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr.
Written by: Jon Favreau
Directed by: Jon Favreau
MPAA Rating: R for language, including some suggestive references
Running Time: 115
Date: 05/16/2014

Chef (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Art of the Sandwich

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Those of us who love food movies have been waiting a while for something as great as Babette's Feast and Big Night to come along. Oh, there have been good things here and there, some documentaries, especially Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and Adrienne Shelly's funny, dark Waitress has some great pie-baking scenes. But Jon Favreau's Chef feels like it could be the first movie that deserves their company.

Written and directed by Favreau, Chef is a sweet, lumbering movie, perhaps a little overweight and graceless, but filled with charm and laughs and a heart as big as a food truck.

Favreau stars as Chef Carl Casper, who has a good job at a popular Los Angeles restaurant, but who butts heads with the owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), when it comes to experimenting with new dishes. Carl wants to change up the menu when a major food blogger, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), drops by. "Play your hits," Riva says. "How would you like it if you went to see the Stones and they didn't play 'Satisfaction'?"

After eating the same old thing, Michel writes a vicious review, slamming both Carl's food and Carl himself. The men get into a social media battle, Carl quits in a huff, and then has a public face-off with Michel, which is shot on several phones and goes viral.

Now, Carl is also a single dad, unable to lavish much attention on his adoring son, Percy (Emjay Anthony). Out of work, Carl's astoundingly beautiful ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), plans a trip to Florida and offers to let Carl come along to look after Percy. At the same time, she knows a guy -- her first ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr.) -- who can hook him up with a food truck.

After sampling some of the culinary delights in Little Havana (and also listening to some hot salsa music performed by Inez's father), Carl decides to make Cubanos (Cuban sandwiches) and sell them from the truck. This leads to a long, summertime cross-country road trip sequence with Carl, Percy, and Carl's sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo), resulting in many smiles and in much drool-inducing tasting of food as they shop in local markets all across the U.S. for ingredients. Percy, meanwhile, becomes a social media butterfly, using Twitter and other platforms to summon hungry customers wherever they go. And everyone learns a little bit about family, life, and love.

Looking at this film and looking back over Favreau's career, it's possible to deduce that he's a good guy with a good heart. (I have also interviewed him.) He wrote the screenplay for Swingers (1996), but did not direct it; perhaps he did not have the confidence back then? Next he wrote and directed Made (2001), a good little gangster film that did not get much attention. Elf (2003) was a huge hit, and catapulted him to the A-list, where he made sturdy, clean, solid entertainments Zathura (2005), Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010).

A turning point must have been Cowboys & Aliens (2011), a movie that, to me, seems to have been made -- and ruined -- by committee. Favreau must have found that a soul-sucking experience, found himself too big and surrounded by too many executives and too much money. On Chef, it feels like he scaled back, rounded up a group of friends -- including both Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson from the Iron Man films -- and set off to find himself, and whatever drew him to making movies, again.

This is, essentially, what the movie is about as well. Carl has the choice to cook and get paid at the big restaurant, or to make less money but find his passion again. The movie is filled with hokey ideas, but presented in an honest, straightforward way. In one scene, Percy is about to serve a burnt sandwich, but Carl takes him aside and explains his passion, and his entire purpose for cooking, and hopes that he can teach at least that much to his son. In another touching moment, he buys the boy his own chef's knife... an odd gesture, but the best one that Carl could possibly make.

During the closing credits, Favreau shows himself working with chef Roy Choi, learning how to make a deluxe grilled cheese sandwich (loaded with butter and with several layers of different cheeses). It's a look behind the curtain that indicates just how much Favreau put in here and how much he learned. The use of social media, too, is savvy, perhaps demonstrating the tools that any fledgling artist or business has at their disposal.

The attention to food preparation, meats, pasta, desserts, vegetables, fruit, etc., as well as the colorful, aesthetic presentation of it, is as good as any food movie ever made. You may leave feeling you could actually smell and taste it. You may leave feeling you've learned something about cooking, eager to get back to your kitchen. You will definitely leave hungry.

Universal released a two-disc DVD/Blu-ray set with an optional Ultraviolet digital copy of the movie. The Blu-ray quality is fine, and only makes those delicious dishes look even more delectable. It comes with a commentary track by director Favreau and chef Roy Choi, as well as 10 minutes of deleted scenes, and trailers for other features.

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