“If you want to be an artist, do it on your own time,” barks Riva, the profit-maximizing restaurant owner Dustin Hoffman plays in Chef, at his creatively frustrated head chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau). Though Favreau—who also wrote, directed, and produced the movie—has played down the parallel in interviews, it’s not hard not to see Favreau’s personal stake in that moment. Favreau has spent nearly a decade helping to build Marvel into a massively successful global brand. He directed the first two Iron Man movies, produced the third, and is also involved as an executive producer for the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron. The only non-Marvel movie he’s directed in the past eight years has been the best-forgotten would-be summer tentpole Cowboys & Aliens. When Carl bristles at his boss’ ultimatum, Chef begins to feel like Favreau’s attempt to wrest back some measure of artistic freedom in his own career. In doing so, he’s been rewarded with the indie sleeper hit of the summer. Why do people love Chef so much?
Back in his early days at the restaurant, Carl the chef was known to whip up edgy and inventive meals out of nothing but fennel, flash-fried crawdads and his own culinary ingenuity. The younger Favreau, for his part, whipped up Swingers (1996), an amiable buddy comedy that became a catchphrase-engendering hit and launched the careers of Favreau and his co-star, Vince Vaughn. Eighteen years later, now ensconced in a comfortable and lucrative Hollywood career, surely Favreau must sometimes feel the same way about churning out blockbusters the way Carl does about baking the same tasty-but-boring chocolate lava cakes every single night for his unadventurous clientele. “Play your hits,” Hoffman’s hard-ass restaurateur orders his head cook, even on the night when a much-feared food blogger (Oliver Platt) is expected to come and dine. But it isn’t until Carl ignores that advice, goes back to his creative roots, and directs a heartwarming mid-budget indie comedy—wait, I mean opens up a Cuban-themed food truck—that the critical accolades, career satisfaction, and personal fulfillment start to roll in.
Chef opened on six screens in early May, but three months later it’s going strong. Its distributor, Open Road, is taking the unusual step of rolling it out for a Labor Day weekend re-release with fall awards season in mind, even as it’s still playing in 100 theaters nationwide. (In another sign that the distributor has shiny statues on the brain, members of film-industry guilds and the Hollywood Foreign Press will be allowed to see the film for free.) Though it hasn’t been a big part of the ambient cultural conversation this summer—at least not in the ambiences I inhabit—Chef has quietly managed to become a sizable box-office hit, one of the year’s top-earning “platform releases”—midsized films debuted in a limited number of markets and expanded later.
It was my mother-in-law who first encouraged me to see Chef nearly two months after it opened—so absent had it been from the critical conversation that its release had slipped right past me. $30 million’s worth of mothers-in-law later, I wanted to know: What is it about Chef that’s given it such surprising staying power with audiences and such steady, if below-the-radar, word of mouth? So I bought a ticket and checked it out.
I can now say that I understand this movie’s crowd-pleasing appeal perfectly, even as I begin to mount the arguments against it in my own mind. There are the structural problems: At nearly two hours, Chef feels far too long, with a baggy middle section and a last act all but devoid of conflict. Then there’s the predictability and sentimentality of the film’s moral lessons: Do you think the burned-out Type-A father will learn to step down the pace at work and see the value of spending time with his family? Or not? And while I realize that the big-schlubby-guy-with-impossibly-lissome-love interest is by now an established Hollywood trope, the likelihood of world-class beauties like Sofia Vergara (as Carl’s wealthy ex-wife) or Scarlett Johansson (as his restaurant hostess and Girl Friday) jonesing to hook up with the bearlike, shambling Favreau seems remote.
Plus, there’s a certain tonal ickiness born of the semi-autobiographical nature of the material. For example, a scene in which Carl publicly explodes in rage at food blogger Platt feels just a little too much like real-life score-settling, perhaps against critics who thought Iron Man 2’s action sequences were dull. Carl’s profane rant goes on at such length that we start to worry about this otherwise gentle character’s unaddressed anger issues.
And yet there’s a buoyant spirit to this comedy of self-reinvention. It’s a movie made by a man who’s clearly enjoying himself, and that counts for a lot. Favreau seems comfortable both in front of and behind the camera, as sure of himself as an actor as he’s ever been, and the anxious, ambitious, food-obsessed Carl isn’t just a thinly veiled alter ego for the director but a rounded comic character whose combination of self-disgust and aggression sometimes recalls the great roles of Albert Brooks. Like Swingers, Chef is less interested in the development of major plot arcs than the moment-to-moment fun of hanging out in the casino or the kitchen, listening as the amusing bro-dude dialogue flies by. A lot of that dialogue is mildly raunchy, which accounts for the movie’s R rating despite a near-complete lack of sex—unless you count the orgasmic moan Johansson emits when she tastes Carl’s garlic spaghetti.
Because truly, the reason everyone wants you to go see Chef has to come down to the food. The movie’s cinematographer, Kramer Morgenthau, is as expert at making the audience salivate for the dishes on display as the culinary consultant, food-truck pioneer Roy Choi, is at making them (as the credits roll, we see Choi coaching Favreau on the fine points of grilled-cheese sandwich construction). The scenes that, arguably, linger too long over Carl’s loving preparation of that homemade garlic spaghetti, or on closeups of Café du Monde beignets piled high with powdered sugar, earn the right to overstay their welcome through visual appeal alone. And all this pretty-victual-ogling is accompanied by a soundtrack full of classic mambo, like Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like it Like That”—a title which could double as the motto for Chef Carl’s (and Jon Favreau’s) unabashedly pleasure-loving quest for artistic independence in the form of a perfectly grilled Cubano.