By Meaghan Clossey
In Jon Farveau’s filmography, his biggest directing credits normally come from big-budget hits like the Iron Man series. He can manufacture explosions and coordinate fight sequences. But for his latest film, Farveau briefly leaves superheroes behind and experiments with portraying a slice of real life. Chef stars its director as Carl Casper, a once aspiring chef now cooking so-called ‘fan favorites’ at a five-star restaurant. After an unfavorable review causes him to lose his job, Casper transforms himself by investing in an old taco truck. With his friend Martin (John Leguizamo) and his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), Casper travels across the country serving Cuban delicacies. The film offers entertainment through both visceral sensations and acting chemistry– its freshness matching the food onscreen.
Selling a film about food requires—wait for it—flavor. It’s not enough to simply watch Cuban sandwiches being made over the course of two hours; audiences need to be incorporated within the inspiration of Casper’s culinary prowess. And Farveau establishes this visceral experience within the first moments. The film opens to Casper alone in a kitchen making a dish in preparation for a restaurant review. An infusion of Cuban music accompanies the scene, complimenting the joy Casper experiences collecting and cooking the ingredients. Cooking not only symbolizes a moment of exhileration for Capser, but also a moment of intimacy. Even as other chefs slowly begin to fill in the kitchen, this moment belongs solely to Casper. Audience inclusion in this intimacy announces the theme of shared experiences through food. By making and sharing food with others, Casper bridges his inability to connect with others– particularly with his son Percy.
Farveau builds upon the common literary trope by introducing a visceral sensation to the film. Audiences hear the hissing of steam off a frying pan and watch the chaotic bubbling of beignets cooking in a deep fryer. Farveau displays the meals with upward shots, allowing audiences to slip into the perspective of looking down at the finished product. Coupled with the grey tones and more subtle musical score at the beginning of the film, audiences become emotionally invested in Casper’s journey from stagnancy to creative rebirth. As Casper explains to his son, cooking is the one thing he does well and wants to share that passion with his patrons.
Chemistry between the actors further brings the film together. Farveau and Leguizamo, who normally play side characters, excel as Chef’s two leading men. The dialogue passing between these characters feels natural and envelops audiences into the familial atmosphere of the film. Like food, conversation becomes a point of connection and intimacy. Long hours in a truck filled with conversations about using cornstarch for unwanted chafing forces vulnerability on behalf of Casper, opening him up for bonding with his son. Conversations are hilariously casual, welcoming audiences into the fresh energy of the film.
Sadly, pacing does somewhat dampens enjoyment. The film seems to divide into three sections, with the cross-country trip comprising a surprisingly short middle section. Exposition in the first sequence drags in the first 45 minutes, slightly dwarfing the cross-country trip which is the emotional crux of the film. The third section’s denouement crashes in following the end of the road trip, leaving audiences slightly stunned at the film’s sudden ending. This is because the film picks up steam in the second section, only to have it completed within thirty minutes. It doesn’t help that some of the subplots—namely, Casper’s ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and her complicated relationship with her first husband (Robert Downey Jr.)—do not seem to hold much tension throughout the film. Pacing does not signal the downfall of the film, but it does leave audiences feel disjointed.
Fans and newcomers to Farveau alike will enjoy the vigor he brings to Chef. Pacing bumps fail to hamper his strong effort to experiment outside of his chosen genre.