Jon Favreau may have found a novel way to make a film critic-proof: by dramatizing and documenting the anguish a snarky critic can inflict upon the sensitive artistic soul. That’s what happens to the character he scripted for himself in Chef, and when you see the parallels between the film and Favreau’s career, it’s hard not to feel for the guy—and the movie.
After his acting and screenwriting breakthrough in 1996’s Swingers, Favreau directed several major commercial and creative successes—Elf and the first two Iron Man films—which he followed with critical failures like Zathura and Cowboys & Aliens. He has cleverly channeled these experiences into the character of Carl Casper, a once-promising young chef who has sold his soul to commercial dining. When his Twitter feud with a food blogger (Oliver Platt) goes viral, Casper loses his job and hits bottom. But after starting an independently owned food truck specializing in Cuban comfort cuisine, he rediscovers his creative voice.
This correlation between Favreau and the character he plays is not merely academic. It’s actually what makes the movie work. While Chef’s script is overly formulaic and a bit too eager to please, it is grounded by Favreau’s personal passions. At every predictable plot turn, there is something that feels unexpectedly true.
We see this in the early scenes between Casper and his bottom-line-driven boss, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), with whom he battles to preserve his artistic identity. Casper wants to challenge himself artistically, but he finds it hard to argue with a boss who simply wants to make his customers happy. The script does not dismiss either perspective, and it makes for good drama with a strong philosophical underpinning.
Still, Favreau’s greatest achievement here may be that he’s come to know his own forte. As a writer, Favreau has a strong ear for the rhythms of male camaraderie, so there may be no setting better suited to his strengths than a high-pressure kitchen. When Casper’s foul-mouthed sous-chef (John Leguizamo) joins him and his son for the truck’s inaugural run, the film’s combination of alpha-male vulgarity and a tender “Cat’s in the Cradle” subplot is hard to resist.
He has also written himself a role that plays to his particular talents. There has always been a compelling juxtaposition between his frat-guy look (he’s particularly large here) and his proclivity for playing sensitive, vulnerable leading men. As such, a commercial chef with an artistic streak is kind of the perfect role for him. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare quite as well. Scarlett Johansson pops up as the restaurant’s hostess, who does little but gaze adoringly at Casper. Robert Downey, Jr. has a cameo role in which he does a passable Vince Vaughn impression (the role must have been written with Favreau’s Swingers buddy in mind). And Sofia Vergara has the misfortune of playing Casper’s underwritten ex-wife, who exists only as eye candy and to set the stage for the film’s impossibly sunny conclusion.
But the star-studded supporting cast is just a side dish. This is Favreau’s show, and he spent his career preparing for it. What’s perhaps most impressive about his work here is how he turned all of his professional disappointments into a story so darn sweet.