While anyone who directs a movie like ‘Iron Man’ obviously knows a thing or two about blockbuster entertainment, it was always a bit odd to see Jon Favreau working in the $150 million arena. The new indie comedy ‘Chef’ feels like a long overdue homecoming for Favreau. Even if it isn’t his best entry in the genre, it’s still nice to have him back to being small and sweet.
‘Swingers’ might be nearing its 20th anniversary, but it still feels like the definitive Jon Favreau movie: funny, awkward, personal, well-observed, uplifting and charming. Once he decided to slide out of acting and focus on a career behind the camera, Favreau brought those qualities to all of his films as a director. The scale got bigger, but the tone was the same in ‘Made’, ‘Elf’ and of course ‘Iron Man’. Yet once Favreau found himself sitting snuggly atop Hollywood as one of the most successful directors in the world, he never quite seemed comfortable. ‘Iron Man 2’ was the first Marvel project clearly defined by corporate mandates, and ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ tried so hard to appeal to all test audience quadrants that it lost any sense of purpose. ‘Chef’ is clearly Favreau’s attempt to get back to basics as a filmmaker and return to the character-driven comedy that kicked off his career. I mention all this because it’s so clearly the subtext of the film, that it’s almost uncomfortable to watch.
Favreau stars as a popular chef working at the top of his game. Sure, he doesn’t spend much time with his son (Emjay Anthony), and even his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) feels the need to tell him that he’s working too hard. But Favreau’s got some buddies in the kitchen (John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale), a hostess with the hots for him (Scarlett Johansson) and even an owner (Dustin Hoffman) who supports him… to a point. When a big foodie blogger (Oliver Platt) announces plans to visit and review his restaurant, Favreau wants to bust out some experimental new dishes to get everyone excited. Hoffman, on the other hand, wants him to stick with the hits. He’s the boss, so a painfully awful review follows. Favreau then has a Twitter meltdown raging against the critic and even rants his way to viral video infamy. As a result, the chef loses everything.
Rather than curl up in a ball, Favreau finally connects with his son and decides to open up a food truck dedicated to the original home cooking he misses. Cue a hilarious, bizarre and all-too brief Robert Downey, Jr. cameo to give Favs the truck, followed by a heartwarming road trip where our hero gets back everything he wanted, bonds with his son, becomes a better person, blah-blah-blah…
It’s all pretty standard personal growth material and would be obnoxious were it not done so well. Favreau knows character comedy too well for that. The story might be simple, but the character interaction feels real with improvised unpredictability. Favreau knows how to cast to type (especially himself), give his players the groundwork they need, and then lets them play. There’s a breezy naturalism to the way the film unfolds that’s undeniably charming and frequently hilarious. Particularly the meltdown in the first act has a sting and life that hasn’t been present in Favreau’s filmmaking since ‘Iron Man’.
Once the plot kicks into gear, things get far more conventional. It’s strange to watch a movie about an artist striving for individuality fall into such familiar patterns, but Favreau at least waltzes to his inevitable conclusion well. At some moments, the movie promises to be one of those unconventional and unforgiving character studies that defined early 1970s filmmaking, but Favreau never quite commits. It’s not enough to kill the movie and will probably even increase its chances of financial success. However, it’s mildly disappointing to watch Favreau’s movie retreat back into comfortable convention, though I suppose that’s a game that he’s always played.
The most interesting aspect is how much autobiography Favreau squeezes almost openly into the movie. It feels like a comment on where his life is now, much like ‘Swingers’ did back in the day. By the time the credits roll, you almost want to give the guy a hug and tell him not to fret so much. The filmmaker also slips in a couple awkward stylistic choices like the endless food porn montages and the often irritating use of social media (with Tweets CGIed onto the screen like helpful birds in a Disney princess picture).
Still, regardless of any and all flaws, the movie is very funny and often quite moving. It might be a one-off lark for the director, but one that offers almost as much fun for the audience as Favreau clearly had making it. Hopefully it signals a return to more personal filmmaking for Favreau. Even though he was responsible for one of the most iconic blockbusters of the 2000s, the guy is better suited to filming human behavior than superhero theatrics. ‘Chef’ feels like a charming throwback for the director. Now it’s time for him to return to form. Or he could start up ‘Dinner for Five’ again. That would be good too.