All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Although Jon Favreau’s movie raises questions about some aspects of its plot — A man whose comments and antics garner tens of thousands of views on Twitter and YouTube gets no job offers? Sure. — its funny, uplifting tale of culinary artistry, individuality, and lessons in fatherhood takes precedence over story lines that could have been handled more neatly if Favreau didn’t need to find new ways to advance his script.
In Carl Casper, a chef who wants to answer a food critic’s snarky review by preparing a special meal his boss nixes, Favreau becomes an everyman hero who earns our immediate allegiance. He establishes himself of man of taste and integrity who is battling against the Philistines, who, in this case, happen to be better-heeled, more influential, and far more pretentious than he is.
Carl’s campaigns to impress and upbraid the critic, to expose the restaurant owner as a jerk, and to bring his style of cooking to the fore mirror struggles people have all the time. Carl’s combination of competence and temperamental impatience makes us favor him even more. In Favreau’s hands as actor and director, Carl is enough to make “Chef” a good, satisfying movie. Add a particularly precious child, played by Emjay Anthony, an unpredictable sidekick, played by John Leguizamo, and supportive ex-wife, played by Sofia Vergara with all of her sunny, sexily-accented openness, and “Chef” could be nothing less than a crowd pleaser.
Doing things well, and in particular making good food, is at the core of the movie. When we meet Carl, he is the head chef in a posh Brentwood restaurant that was popular because of his cuisine and the riskless menu the eatery’s owner, played by Dustin Hoffman, has been offering for 20 years.
Carl wants to add adventure to his diners’ experience. He has little objection to adhering to the same menu night after night if he can add dishes that would give the restaurant some creativity and zest. Carl is one who invents recipes, not one who follows the same schema day in and day out. (Frankly, hearing some of the dishes Carl wants to prepare, e.g, beef cheeks, makes me side with Hoffman as a diner, even as I wonder in my “and” instead of “or” way why the characters couldn’t cooperate and offer a little of both of their menus.)
Things come to a head when one of the blogosphere’s most read critics, one who sold his blog to AOL for $10 million and who is played by Oliver Platt, comes to review Carl’s cuisine and finds it flat and out-of-date. He asks what happened to the Carl Casper whose food he loved and praised in Miami in a previous decade.
Not only is the critic’s review nastily excoriating, but it is well broadcast via the Twitterverse, and embarrasses Carl internationally. Leguizamo’s character teaches Carl how to send a message by Twitter, but he neglects to show him how to keep a tweet personal, and Carl’s screed against his critic also reaches multitudes and leads to Twitter tennis between Carl and his adversary. One of the tweets invites the critic back to Hoffman’s restaurant for a newly conceived meal he will prepare himself, with the help of his sous chefs, Leguizamo and another played, by Bobby Cannavale.
This is where Favreau’s script for “Chef” gets a little sticky. A series of events occur that seem more contrived to set up the next group of plot twists but which are forgivable because “Chef” is so entertaining and makes you delight in rooting for Carl to ace anything he touches.
The first thing that would never happen is Hoffman’s owner seeing the revised menu Carl intends to make for the critic’s return and pitching a major hissy in front of the entire kitchen and front-of-house staff.
Hoffman’s character comes off as an old-fashioned business owner who would insist on carrying hobnails at a hardware store that never sold any. He is stubborn and petulant in a way that gives Carl no room to bargain.
This is hard to believe. One would expect a restaurant owner would be happy to participate in the comeuppance of a critic who denigrated his establishment. You’d think he’d be a willing party to the menu meant to show the critic Carl’s mettle and the capability of the restaurant.
No, Hoffman’s owner says his clientele is steady and uninfluenced by reviews. He wants the tried-and-true served. He keeps insisting when cooler heads explain the people who reserved for Act Two in the chef-critic showdown responded to the back-and-forth tweets between Carl and the critic and are foodies who want to witness what they consider to be an event.
The standoff gets so heady, Carl quits in a huff and takes the ingredients he handpicked from L.A.’s markets with him.
That sets up the second oddity. You see Carl take the various meats and vegetables he’s chosen to his home kitchen and prepare them as if they were a feast for a banquet.
Then comes a scene in which you see Carl roaring off in his car and heading to Hoffman’s restaurant. My impression, my guess anyway, was Carl was going to remove all that came out of the Brentwood kitchen from Hoffman’s tables and replace those dishes with his own.
But, no. You never see or learn what happened to all of that scrumptious looking food. Carl goes into Hoffman’s joint and unleashes a vitriolic diatribe I think all critics, moi aussi, should take to heart. He lambastes Platt’s character with how much imagination it takes to form a creative menu, then reminds him how much work and how much heart goes into preparing it. He ends by saying his artistry, competence, and sense of public taste takes a skill eating a meal and scribbling a few commentating words about it does not. He ends his tantrum by dousing Platt with whipped cream. Excuse me, crème fraiche. The entire commotion is recorded on dozens of diners’ mobile phones and goes viral, earning Carl more attention.
This is where Favreau, as writer and director, really tries our credibility. Instead of all the publicity triggering a bidding war for Carl’s services, the guy can’t get a job broiling a hot dog at Dodger Stadium.
Yeah, my eyes were rolling too. As a blogger, a critic, and someone who likes to work for money, I would vow to strive forever for world peace if one of my pieces received the notoriety Carl’s does.
Of course, Favreau is setting up the, pardon the expression, meatier part of his story, the section of his script I’d wager truly interests him.
Down on his luck, seeing his savings dwindle, allegedly unhireable by any restaurant from L.A. to Ulan Bator, Carl must appeal to his ex-wife, a successful meeting planner, to help him financially. (Just to show where Carl is lucky, the ex-wife is Sofia Vergara, and his current girlfriend and encourager is Scarlett Johansson. Not exactly shabby, right?)
Vergara’s character, it turns out, is going to Miami on business and needs someone to come with her to look after her 11-year-old son.
Who better than the boy’s father who has a good relationship with the lad but can be absentee and scattershot about visits in a way that often disappoints and upsets the boy? Favreau has been careful enough to show both the closeness of the father-son affection and the boy’s sadness when his father lets him down, so we know Carl has work to do as a parent.
He accepts, and we see Favreau’s overarching agenda, a father-son bonding tale and a story about how an individual with talent will always succeed.
The father-son story is sweet and engaging. Not only has Favreau’s Carl won our support, Anthony’s portrayal of the son, trendily named Percy, is frankly irresistible. Anthony has eyes that melt you and a natural style of performing that shows intelligence but doesn’t scream “child actor.”
Carl not only gets to spend quality time with Percy, time that lets father and son see all aspects of the other’s character, not just the positive parts it’s convenient to muster during short, infrequent visits, but he gets to introduce him to and teach him the intricacies of his trade, cooking in a way that pleases.
The scenes of father and son together endow “Chef” with a sentimental tone that never crosses into sentimentality or becomes precious. A real relationship between people we like is forming, and it is entertaining and pleasurable to behold.
Food becomes “Chef’s” glue again as the reason Carl and Percy spend so much time together is because Carl, with his ex-wife’s instigation, and money, buys a food truck from which he intends to sell a Cubano sandwich for which he’s fabled. At least to Vergara, his friends in Miami, and Leguizamo’s character who quits his job in Brentwood and comes to Miami on his own to assist Carl.
Percy is not originally part of Carl’s plan. He is initially put to work to clean the filthy truck no one in his or her right mind would eat from until it was scoured and sanitized.
But Percy wants to cook. In another punch Favreau initially pulls, Carl is reluctant to have Percy in his kitchen because the work can be dangerous — The kid can get burnt or cut himself badly with sharp knives. — and requires the kind of skill as a cook that might not be able to be taught in the fast setting of a food truck.
Of course, these obstacles are shunted aside, and Percy becomes a partner with Carl and Leguizamo on their truck.
The first day on South Beach tells the story. Carl’s Cubanos and other Latin cuisine is a hit. Percy is a natural on the sandwich press and comes of age a bit hearing his father’s and Leguizamo’s stories and drinking his first beer.
The bonding part of “Chef” is delightful. It rarely gets sappy or clichéd. Favreau, Anthony, Leguizamo, and Vergara have an easy, amiable style that precludes that. There may a couple of moments that cloy , e.g. when Carl warns Percy they may not be able to hang out as often when they return to L.A., a scene I chalk up to Hollywood twaddle, but in general, Favreau’s evolution as a father is a breezy, light affair that keeps the audience in high spirits.
Carl’s truck makes a triumphant tour across the U.S. from Miami to L.A., where it joins the ranks in that city’s busy downtown. You can imagine who comes by for a Cubano and the result.
“Chef” brims with life and exudes the closeness of families, even families that include ex-wives and extended members like Leguizamo or Carl’s ex-wife’s ex-husband, played with foggy wit by Robert Downey, Jr. That extended family also includes Vergara’s father, a Cuban musician, played by Jose C. Hernandez, who plays in a Miami nightclub and leads his band in a wonderful set of Latin music that further leavens Favreau’s movie, as does a sequence with a skeletal marionette called Mr. Bonetangles.
Even when Favreau’s movies begs issues or is obvious, it remains enjoyable. You are always willing to overlook a lapse in logic or script manipulation to see what happens next and to spend more time with Favreau and his cast.