Chef | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published May 28, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

With his latest, Jon Favreau accomplishes something all but unprecedented in movie history. He convinces us that the shlub he plays could've snagged Sofía Vergara. I kid (She plays his character's ex.) What he's done that's amazing is escape the Hollywood trap.

Like many before him, Favreau made his name by writing and directing independent films of striking originality (Swingers [1996] and Made [2001]), and, like many before him, he learned the payoff for innovation is the chance to do big, formulaic fare for big bucks.

Which he did well enough for a while. If you're going to go mainstream, you could do worse than Elf (2003) and the first two Iron Man films (2008 and 2010). Then, in 2012, Favreau took stock. He was making money. But he no longer was money.

He'd jumped the shark both behind and in front of the camera, having costarred that year in the bloated bomb John Carter and watched his 2011 directorial effort Cowboys & Aliens ride into the sunset with a 44 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating and the worst reviews of his career. Most entertainment professionals who find themselves in this position summon the courage to go on doing mediocre, insanely well-paying work. But, to Favreau's credit, he went a different way.

He regrouped and got small again. Not only did he return to his character- and dialogue-driven roots, but he managed to tell the story of a fictitious foodie superstar that serves as a metaphor for his own. It's one of the most remarkable filmmaking feats I've witnessed.

Early on in Chef, Favreau's character, Carl, storms out of the LA restaurant to which he's devoted years of his life. His hunger for fame has cost him his marriage and made him a virtual stranger to his 11-year-old son (Emjay Anthony). The catalyst for this life-changing move is a scathing review from an influential blogger played by Oliver Platt. When Carl confronts the critic and unloads about how much his words can hurt a person who cares about his art, it's hard not to hear his rant as more than a plot-propelling device.

Carl realizes he's got to start over and rediscover his gastro-passion. On a trip to Miami, he falls in love with Cuban sandwiches and acquires a beaten-up food truck. Father and son grow close over its refurbishing, and then as Carl shows the kid the food-prep ropes. Joined by a line cook (John Leguizamo) who previously worked with Carl, they christen their eatery-on-wheels "Cubanos" and decide to test-market the concept on the drive home.

The movie proves an inspired combination of ingredients. The score is a blend of New Orleans funk and white-hot salsa. At a stop in Austin, Texas, the truck winds up across the street from an outdoor Gary Clark Jr. concert — and not even near the city limits. Later, the crew detours into Food Network territory and pays its respects at Aaron Franklin's legendary barbecue house of worship. Favreau must've shot in Scrumptio-vision, because, when someone savors a strip of freshly roasted meat or a sandwich sizzles in an oven, you'll swear you can taste it.

Leisurely paced, filled with great, unforced dialogue and wall-to-wall with comic scenes improvised so masterfully they seem polished, Chef is a one-of-a-kind celebration of friendship, the bond between father and son, and fresh starts. It's a return to form deserving of a place alongside culinary classics such as Big Night and Babette's Feast. I don't want to give away much more of the story, but I will give a piece of advice: If you're planning to do dinner and a movie, do this movie first. You'll thank me.

Also, bring a hanky. There will be drool.

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Official Site:

Director: Jon Favreau

Writer: Jon Favreau

Producer: Sergei Bespalov, Jon Favreau and Karen Gilchrist

Cast: Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey, Jr.