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FILM REVIEW: Chef

Categories: Movies

Chef is a chewy, stick-to-your-ribs sort of film: a bit of cinematic soul food, filled with delicious imagery and colourful characters. But the meat of this movie, directed by and starring Jon Favreau, is the battle between commerce and creativity.

Favreau is a writer-director whose life is a bit of a Hollywood story in itself. He began as a hardscrabble actor from Queens who got his start scripting and starring in the spirited indie flick Swingers.

From there, Favreau leapt into the movie mainstream. He gave us the modern-day Christmas classic Elf and helped put Marvel on the map with Iron Man. He's also had his share of stumbles, including Cowboys and Aliens, a commercial flop that led him to back to filmmaking on his own terms.

You can see that career track reflected in Chef, a movie about a culinary artist who burns out and goes on the road to rediscover his passion.

In the film, he portrays Carl, an L.A. celebrity chef stuck in a rut. On the day a major food blogger comes to dinner, the restaurant's owner (Hoffman) lays down the law: "Play the hits." Out goes his bold, new flavours. In comes the lava cake.

Performed with relish by Oliver Platt, the blogger destroys Carl in his review. When the chef makes the mistake of replying via Twitter — well, you can imagine. Soon, Carl finds himself on a road trip: he's downsizes to a food truck and uses the experience to reconnect with his son, Percy.

Chef is a film for the senses that belongs on a playlist next to delectable food-centred titles like Big Night and The Trip. The screen sizzles with its cooking scenes, which are accented by a soundtrack of Latino and soul music.

If Favreau was using Chef to return to his independent filmmaking roots, however, he's missed the mark. What he's made is a surprisingly wholesome film about food and fatherhood. But the fact that he's stacked the deck with A-list actors strains the authentic vibe he's going for, never mind the movie's overwhelming social media angle — complete with animated birds (!) to represent Tweets.

Favreau likens Chef to an acoustic album, but look who he's jamming with: Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Robert Downey Jr. and Dustin Hoffman. That's not too shabby.

Chef Emjay Anthony, left, and Jon Favreau appear in a scene from Chef. (Merrick Morton/Open Road Films/AP)

Still, if you know where to look, what you'll find are some flashes of honesty. At one point, Carl confronts the dreaded food critic and bellows that the pathetic man only makes "words." Methinks this rant might have more to do with film than food.

There's another awkwardly real moment with comedian Russell Peters playing a Miami cop who takes a few too many selfies — a scene that just might speak to what it's like meeting fans in public. There's also the earnest way Carl talks about "touching people's lives" with something as simple as a toasted Cuban sandwich.

Favreau doesn't oversell his performance as the frustrated chef and parent, but his relationship with his ex-wife (Vergara) lacks a certain spice. Just compare that to his flirtatious friendship with a hostess (Johansson) or, even better, revel in the rock 'n' roll atmosphere of his kitchen, featuring Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale as the chef's faithful followers.

Iron Man himself (Downey Jr.) flies in for just a single scene, but it's a doozy: a hilarious conversation that jumps between carpet samples and carnal relations, RDJ gloriously delivers the dialogue as if he were performing bebop jazz..

Oh, and here's a tip: don't go see Chef while hungry or you could be gnawing your armrest by the end. The film is filled with delectable close-ups. At the screening I attended, there was an audible gasp from the audience as the camera zoomed right in for a shot of an utterly perfect grilled-cheese sandwich coming off the pan. Mmmmmmm.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5

Tags: Chef, Jon Favreau

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