By Mike Scott
Geographically, Jon Favreau’s “Chef” spends only about 20 minutes of screen time in New Orleans. Maybe less. But spiritually, it feels as if it plays out entirely between the levees.
That’s because few films manage to capture the essence and the passion of the Crescent City as well as Favreau’s film does — even those that are set and shot entirely here.That’s also because, at it’s root, Favreau’s sweet and uplifting culinary road trip is about things that are vitally important to the legions who love this city: food, family and the need to take a breath — not to mention the time — to rediscover the passion that is so easy to lose amid life’s churning sea of stupid worries.
This is, in other words, a film born of that very same joie de vivre that prompts locals to throw second-lines, festivals and parades at the drop of a chapeau.
As a result, New Orleans moviegoers stand to find something of a kindred cinematic spirit in “Chef,” which is built around a story that is beautiful not just in its simplicity but also in its universality.
It’s about a talented, top-shelf West Coast chef named Carl Casper (played by writer-director Favreau) who finds himself at a crossroads both professionally and personally. The crux of his woes: his workaholic tendencies coupled with his difficulty connecting with both an overly rigid boss and an adoring 10-year-old son. With a little help from fate (in the form of an amusing, Twitter-fueled professional disaster), Carl reinvents himself — as the owner and operator of a food truck.
Then he hits the road, son in tow, to rediscover his passion, not just for the plate but also for life.
Along the way, audiences are treated to a smorgasbord of mouth-watering food shots that are every bit as much the star of the film as Favreau’s ridiculously pedigreed supporting cast (Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., Bobby Cannavale, John Leguizamo …).
Present throughout is that bubbling sense of New Orleans-ness, which starts with the film’s very first scene. It’s set in the L.A. kitchen of a multi-tasking Carl, but it’s not where he is that’s important so much as what he’s doing: He is prepping a whole pig and rocking out to the Wild Magnolias’ “Brother John.” Just like that, the tone for the film is set and the whole mouth-watering thing comes to life.
Here’s a guy, we learn soon enough, for whom food is life (and, in some cases, foreplay) and so he approaches it with an unapologetic zeal.
That same vibe shines perhaps brightest, however, in another scene about three-quarters of the way through, when a finally content Carl — mojo seemingly restored, as he rolls down I-10 in his mobile kitchen — sings along with co-star Leguizamo to the Hot 8 Brass Band’s rendition of “Sexual Healing.”
It’s a moment of sheer, pure joy — one of many in “Chef.”
Another: a scene in which Carl strolls through the French Market while his son munches his very first beignet, which is set up in the film’s first 15 minutes as something of a Holy Grail for father and son. “Eat it slow. You’re never going to taste your first beignet again,” Favreau advises the kid, adding, quite correctly: “They don’t taste like this anywhere else in the world.”
Similar moments play out in the film’s detours to mouth-watering Miami and foot-stomping Austin, Texas. Granted, those scenes are infused with their own specific regional flavor, from the expertly chosen music to the food (Cubanos y yuca for Miami; slow-cooked brisket in Texas). But there’s a laissez-les-bon-temps-rouler vibe to the entire affair, regardless of geography.
By the time it’s done, one gets the feeling “Chef” is a very personal film for Favreau, and not just because of his own passion for food. Embedded in his film’s very DNA is an ode to creativity — whether that’s in the form of food, music, film or something else entirely — and a middle finger to those cranks and critics who are all too willing to rain on someone else’s efforts solely out of selfishness and bitterness.
“I get to touch peoples’ lives with what I do, and it keeps me going,” Carl says at one point. But one gets the feeling it’s really Favreau talking.
“Chef” opens in New Orleans today (May 23), after playing the Tribeca Film Festival last month and opening in larger markets on May 2. And while it’s been met with general applause, there have been those who have dismissed its straight-line story as so much lightweight food fetishism. It’s hard not to suspect that those critics long ago lost that love for life that so many people come to New Orleans to rediscover — and who don’t realize that the simplest pleasures can lead to the most profound happiness.
Favreau clearly gets it, though, and he infuses his film with it from credits to credits.
So, yes, “Chef” is built around a simple story. This is a far cry from Favreau’s crowded, go-go-go action films, such as “Iron Man” and “Cowboys & Aliens.” And it is beautiful because of it, a thorough charmer that prompts repeated smiles and laughs — and no small amount of salivating.
Here’s a film that feeds the heart and the soul — and will make you want to feed your face when it is done. In fact, you’ll want to make your dinner reservations for after the movie.
Otherwise, you’re just going to end up eating twice.
4 stars, out of 5
Snapshot: Jon Favreau returns to his indie roots with a dramatic comedy, shot partly in New Orleans, about a top-shelf chef whose professional and personal troubles prompt him to buy a food truck and hit the road in the hopes of rediscovering his passion.
What works: From the music to the mouth-watering foodie shots, it’s a delight from start to finish, a feel-good story with its share of laughs and universal emotions.
What doesn’t: The less romantic might complain of the pat ending and the straight-line story.
Cast: Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman. Director: Favreau. Rating: R, for language, including some suggestive references. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.
This story was originally published in May 2014 by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.