There is an indescribable joyfulness that permeates most frames of Chef, Jon Favreau’s new film, that takes themes we have seen a million times before in movies and gives them a zestful exuberance that cannot be denied.
In raw form you would be inclined to think you have seen it all before.
The divorced middle-aged guy (chef Carl Casper played by Favreau) benignly estranged from his ten year old son Percy, played with natural boyish verve by Emjay Anthony and doing his best to get along with his ex-wife Inez (Sofía Vergara), who is living in a crappy apartment and creatively stifled in his job at a restaurant run by Riva (Dustin Hoffman).
If it sounds like a bunch of movie cliches thrown together, in broad brushstroke terms at least, it is.
But something magical happens as the movie goes along and all these tired and worn cliches suddenly come alive with a sparkly, bubbly effervescence, suffused by the exhilaration of one man’s re-discovery of what truly makes him happy (hint: it’s not running the restaurant’s kitchen where his attempts to experiment with the menu are shut down every time).
It’s quite possible that Favreau, fresh from blockbuster Hollywood fare like Cowboys and Aliens, Iron Man 3 and The Avengers, has found a re-awakening of sorts in this return to semi-indie fare.
Or simply that reaching his forties has given him pause to think more deeply about what it is about life, anyone’s life, that makes it worth living, that it gives a meaning beyond the minutiae of day to day existence.
Whatever his motivation, he has perfectly captured that adrift sense that men and women of a certain age, who have woken up and suddenly realised they’ve diverged from the things they know they love and are good at, but have no idea how to get back to the point before it all went wrong, will eminently identify with.
Of course, working out where to go when you’re in this lost and aimless state is not easy, which Favreau beautifully illustrates as Casper, fresh from a humiliating Twitter-fueled split from Riva (the social network figures prominently and creatively in the film), which earns him a notoriety he never asked for, struggles mightily to work out what he should do next.
And it’s not just his career that is demanding he makes some life changing decisions and fast.
His son, desperate for the sort of quality time he used to have with his dad pre-divorce, is clamouring at every opportunity to spend time with his workaholic father that doesn’t involve movies or frenetic outings to fun parks.
In one crucial scene where he is teaching his father how to use Twitter, a newly acquired skill that gets the emotional impetuous chef into all sorts of cyber trouble with prominent food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), he admits to Casper that this is the sort of activity that makes him the happiest – just hanging with his dad.
It’s a revelation to Casper, a man who doesn’t know there is a slow lane in life, who is given to pause to realise that perhaps he needs to re-think his whole approach to fatherhood, and yes, his career.
It’s what motivates him no doubt to go to Miami over the summer with Inez and Percy, ostensibly to look after his son while his uber-successful wife pursues a host of business opportunities.
He thinks it will be a chance to re-connect with his son, and that’s exactly what it becomes, but it doesn’t quite play out the way he expects with Inez’s first husband Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) offering him the chance to go on the road with his cooking in the form of a rusted out old food van which he quickly and almost magically rehabilitates.
Suddenly alive with a passion for cooking he thought he had long lost, and with his son, and his friend and close colleague Martin by his side, he embarks on an entirely new career cooking authentic and yet creatively re-interpreted Cuban cooking for the masses.
He takes this new career on the road, stopping in Miami, New Orleans and happily for a movie that premiered at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, Austin, Texas, his progress announced and catalogued by his social-media savvy son who turns what could have been anonymous road trip into a brand new startlingly successful career.
At its heart Chef is about the need we all have to “follow our bliss”, something which is discounted by many as impractical but which Favreau eloquently underlines is as necessary as breathing if we’re going to enjoy our brief time on this earth.
He is at pains to make it clear that no man or woman is an island and that figuring out what will make you happy beyond measure is as much about the people around you as it is the talents, skills and passion you bring to your career and life as a whole.
While it has a reasonably tidy, happy ending, and plays out much as expected, its peppy narrative augmented by some of the finest cuban-influenced music you’re likely to hear anywhere, its upbeat tones matching the joie de vivre of the story to a tee, Chef is never less than a joy, an exuberant paean to what happens when you just go with what comes naturally.