|Emjay Anthony and Jon Favreau aren't selling cigars in Chef.|
««« Chef. Written and directed by Jon Favreau. At selected theaters.
While you've been busy living your life, cable TV has reordered certain things in your world. The "weather"—which was formerly just background noise, like the Dow Jones Industrial Average and scores of teams you don't follow---is now 24-hour news. "Sports" is merely a variety of content. And "food", thanks to shows like Iron Chef and Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen, is now sports.
If you missed all that, don't worry: 47 year-old Jon Favreau (Swingers, Iron Man) also didn't get the memo. The result is Chef, a surprisingly tasty amuse-bouche that is predicated on the idea that cooking is actually an imaginative endeavor, its practitioners subject to inspiration, creative doldrums, sublimating their sexuality through their craft, etc. In short, he somehow believes chefs are artists, not gladiators in aprons.
Favreau plays Carl Casper, a once-upon-a-time rising star on the LA restaurant scene. Once a cauldron of creativity, he's lately fallen into a rut created by his own success, as his boss (Dustin Hoffman, in a small role) doesn't want him deviate from the culinary "hits" that made his reputation. He's just treading water, and even that keeps him too busy for a meaningful relationship with the son (Emjay Anthony) from his failed (but amicably ended) marriage to Inez (Sofía Vergara). A scathing review from a smug blogger (Oliver Platt) sends Carl's precarious life into a tailspin. "I just want to cook," he complains, as the business of his business sucks all the pleasure from his craft. Finding the fun again—and a shared life with his son—ultimately leads him to a grease-spattered taco truck in Miami, where there's always room for a another decent Cuban sandwich.
Favreau's script could easily have gone another way. Personal redemption stories aren't rare in Hollywood, and they usually involve some kind of mano y mano, some sort pissing contest. If Chef were a typical vehicle for Tom Cruise (who is actually four years older than Favreau), it would have been more about flashy knife skills and the endearing foibles that make "the Kid" hard to beat. Chef Cruise might have ended up matched against his stuffy nemesis (say, Tom Hiddleston) on an episode of Iron Chef, where the hero would fall way behind, but then pull out the win with some bewildering stroke of culinary genius. Cut to The Girl in the audience—lubed with adoration—and then the closing shot of fist-pumping Cruise, immortalized in freeze-frame.
But Favreau's guy doesn't want to be on Iron Chef, or be a reality TV star. He just wants to cook. In Favreau's script, that's just what he does, trying to rebuild his self-esteem and his personal life one crafty sandwich at a time. Like John Turturro's Fading Gigolo, there's a maturity in this film's proportioning of story and stakes. In both, there's a sense that heroism need not be manifested in triumph, but in plugging away consistently at something you're good at.
True, Favreau had his career breakthrough with Iron Man, a $200 million superhero opus. He's got more appeal working on the scale of Swingers and Chef, though. Here's to small plates.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro