SXSW Review: CHEF

In all my years covering SXSW, I can honestly say I’ve never seen a more appropriate film to open the festival than Jon Favreau’s Chef. 

Perfectly catering — pun intended — to the Austin audience, the film is a character study on those who create our food and what one might sacrifice in that pursuit.

Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is a creatively stifled chef who should be in the prime of his career. His restaurant-owner boss — played by Dustin Hoffman — is more interested in keeping patrons in his establishment than furthering his illustrious cook’s career. Following a scathing review from a once-loyal food critic, Casper loses his job, and begins a public media feud with the blogger.

His professional life in turmoil, Casper’s ex-wife — a surprisingly subdued Sofia Vegara — urges him to repair his relationship with his son (Emjay Anthony) and revitalize his career by opening a food truck business.

Anthony steals the show, one of those kids in film that is well-versed in the world of technology and memes. And his interactions with Favreau and sous-chef John Leguizamo allow the budding actor to stretch his improvisational chops.

Taking great care to infuse realism into the art of cooking, Favreau hired consultant chef Roy Choi to advise on production design — as Choi says it, most films about cooking get it wrong; kitchens are not that tidy, bell peppers are not stacked in pyramids — and on-screen cooking. There’s a behind-the-scenes look of Choi discussing the making of a grilled-cheese sandwich with Favreau as the credits roll. It’s inspired and a joy to see the care taken for detail.

Music is a big part of the overall presentation, and the soundtrack adds a lively bounce to the pacing. The editing is solid with scenes flowing quickly and organically, and changing with every scene’s emotion, the whole feel of the film is authentic.

Laugh out loud hilarious, full of heart, wit, and inspired turns by the cast, Chef might be Faverau’s best film yet. This is independent cinema done right: Favreau wrote the script in eight days, and though he has been busying himself in the world of Tony Stark, he had a fully realized vision of the movie almost immediately. And that hasn’t happened to him since Swingers.

Micro-budget films, though we are speaking in Hollywood terms (think under $10 million), allow for the opportunity to stretch creative legs and try new genres of cinema. You do not have a studio focused on the bottom line because the monetary risk is minimal. Like Chef Casper taking out his new food truck, and building on word of mouth, a film like this is exciting for all the possibilities. The story has yet to be written. Everyone knows what to expect from Iron Man, but with Chef, going in blind is a privilege.

Brimming with cameos from A-lister friends like Robert Downey, Jr. — who also designed the film’s buzzy poster — Dustin Hoffman, and Oliver Platt, everyone looks like that had fun making Chef, which floats off the screen and creates a dance the audience feels party to.

The film is not without its problems, however. Scarlett Johansson’s Molly is not a fully realized character, who basically shows up to offer Bob Saget-like advice to Casper and then completely disappears from the story, never to be seen or brought up again. I suspect this had much to do with scheduling conflicts for the actress and not script-based. Also, the sound mixing has its flaws, as independent films often face recording location sound with a live band playing in the background. There is room for a few cuts, as well, as the film runs about fifteen minutes too long.

But these small issues in no way undermine the fantastic whole. Favreau appeared truly ebullient to be sharing this film with an audience; it is refreshing to see a filmmaker so excited to share his work, especially coming from the jaded jaws of Hollywood.  Watching him introduce Chef was like experiencing a budding filmmaker’s first festival. Perhaps, Chef  is more of a metaphor for Favreau’s place in his own career, and we are privy to the revitalization. Social media is an integral part of the story, and Open Road — responsible for distributing Chef —  along with Favreau have began an online media campaign that will hopefully inspire new filmmaker to do these same.

Before the premiere, Favreau addressed the audience, stating that Chef was “not a lofty film…[he wasn’t] attempting to change the way of cinema” by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a film designed with its audience in mind. It’s a love letter to fans of independent cinema, to those of us who jumped aboard the Favreau train way back in 1996. Every frame feels very fresh, like we are treading new ground, a filmmaker on the rise. After being in the business for over twenty years, he might not be trying to change movies forever, but with Chef, Jon Favreau is certainly on the right track.

Final Grade: B. An inspired film full of heart. Spend some time with Chef.

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