A re-invigorated ‘Chef’ concocts an inspired treat

A re-invigorated ‘Chef’ concocts an inspired treat

Multi-hyphenate Jon Favreau flees the Hollywood test kitchen

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau and Sofia Vergara in “Chef”; Rating: R, Grade: A

It doesn’t take long for a talented upstart to settle into a comfortable groove, right?

Not many of us know about this from experience, but the stories abound across disciplines. Take, for instance, a hungry filmmaker like Jon Favreau who cut his teeth acting in the early 1990s, doing bit parts in films (he was an extra in “Hoffa” and credited as a taxi driver in “Folks!”) and on television (on one episode of “Seinfeld” back in 1994, he was Eric the Clown), but he seized control of his destiny when he sat down and wrote “Swingers” and starred alongside buddy Vince Vaughn in the Doug Liman-directed comedic indie release about acting hustlers working the retro-lounge scene. The movie certainly has a jazz-like swing to it; an offbeat rhythm that instinctively knows it doesn’t have to follow the same boring narrative beats. Not just nodding along to the beat of its own drum, there was a brassy boldness in its characters and performances.

And, slowly, Hollywood took notice. Favreau kept appearing in front of the camera as a dependable supporting player in studio projects, but he would sneak in an indie film into the mix, to appease the creative fire in his belly – something like 2000’s “Love & Sex” where he could take center stage and showcase his natural wit and ease. In those smaller settings, Favreau never comes across as an “actor” with tics or a need to showboat; he is loose and organic, confident enough to give free rein to his vulnerability.

Somewhere along the way, he earned the opportunity to step behind the camera and, wisely, he started small. He teamed up again with Vaughn for “Made,” which was released a year after “Love & Sex.” The movie didn’t exactly set the world aflame, but it offered the sense of incremental development and set the stage for what would be his breakout, the Will Ferrell holiday comedy “Elf.” Now, here was proof Favreau could handle big talent, a bit of spectacle and spice things up with a touch of heart without spilling over into sentimentality. Soon, he was presented the keys to the kingdom with “Iron Man.” His first two installments in the armored Avenger’s live action franchise laid the foundation for Marvel Entertainment’s emergence in the film world.

But imagine Favreau as a chef, say a guy like his character, Carl Casper, in “Chef,” his return to the relative micro-scale realm outside the blockbusting tentpole frames he’s become accustomed to. Chef Carl made a big splash in Miami, then uprooted for the culinary limelight of California and reduced the heat on his passions a bit. He took a cushy gig with a big-name backer (Dustin Hoffman) and slid into the role of part-time dad to his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony). There’s little drama with his highly supportive ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and he’s got an ace number two in the kitchen (John Leguizamo) willing to follow him anywhere.

The question is, where does Chef Carl need/want to go? A very public run-in with a social media food critic (Oliver Platt) reduces Carl to a chef without a kitchen, until he finds himself behind the wheel of a food truck, back in South Beach, reconnecting with what matters most – his son and his passion for food.

Sounds formulaic, right? Well, open yourself up to the laidback pleasures of the open road. Yes, Carl gets his groove back, but man, the journey is full of real joy and undeniable fun. The food prep scene approximates the experience of sidling up to a sushi bar to watch a master handcraft each wondrous gem and Favreau spices things up with musical moments – the New Orleans-inspired version of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” with Favreau and Leguizamo singing along is palate-cleansing magic – that truly create a symphony of sensual delight.

“Chef” reminds us, even in today’s social media landscape, the second act can be much more than a mere career reboot.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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