Chef (2014)

(On Cable TV, April 2015)  Once you get past the pseudo-intellectual nonsense and fancy vocabulary, one of the basic questions to be answered by movie criticism is this: Has this movie made me happier than I was before watching it?  It’s not a universally-applicable test (I’m not seriously proposing that all great movies are feel-good movies) but it’s one of the big ones.  And it gives me some pleasure to report that among Chef’s best qualities is that it’s a movie that made me happy.  It’s a bubbly, charming, energetic-but-relaxed comedy about food, relationships and criticism as a path to self-improvement.  The plot isn’t exactly tight, but it is about a chef forced to make life-altering changes in the wake of a disastrous restaurant review and ensuing social media kerfuffle.  From Los Angeles to Miami and back again via New Orleans and Austin, Chef offers a loose comedy with quirky characters, up-to-the-moment techno-social commentary, fantastic food imagery and an unapologetic upbeat ending.  Jon Favreau not only stars, but produces, writes and directs the film, which raises all sorts of fascinating questions about vanity projects with valid artistic intentions: It’s hard to see this tale of chef reinventing himself by going to his roots and avoid comparison with a filmmaker with three massive Hollywood movies under his belt going back to his independent film origins.  (Note to Favreau: I’ll take one fresh Chef over ten reheated Cowboys versus Aliens.)  Not only is Favreau reaffirming his directing credentials with a lower budget (the film is a breeze to sit through), but his credibility is current enough to be able to attract an astonishing cast in supporting roles from Robert Downey Jr to Scarlett Johansson to Dustin Hoffman to Oliver Platt.  Sofia Vergara has a rare non-irritating role, while John Leguizamo turns in one of his most likable performances to date and ten-year-old Emjay Anthony features strongly.  The script may not be fined-tuned (the episodic structure can feel disjointed and the ending, as positively-happy as it is, feels abrupt) but it hits a likable tone strongly supported by a peppy soundtrack.  Chef is one of those (too-rare) films that make you happy, make you feel alive, make you feel as if everything is fine with cinema.

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