By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 7, 2014 at 12:43PM
In real life Jon Favreau is a huggable bear of man who wears his insecurities on his sleeve. So why be surprised when his return to scruffy indie filmmaking, "Chef," shows the same qualities? An 8-page outline came to the writer-director in a flash. He showed it to his friends and they encouraged him to write a full script, which he then enlisted his agency CAA to help finance. Many of his "Iron Man" pals--Robert Downey, Jr. and Scarlett Johansson have small roles--helped him out for SAG minimum, along with ace comedic actors Dustin Hoffman, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, and John Leguizamo. "Nobody got paid anything," said Favreau at this past SXSW's Paramount opening night premiere. "This felt like it wanted to happen. Every once in a while it clicks."
Born in Queens, Favreau started out making his living as a funny character actor and occasional screenwriter and director — which turned out to be his forte, from family flick “Zathura" and Christmas comedy "Elf" to the "Iron Man" movies. "Cowboys & Aliens" turned out to be a misguided concept that even Favreau could not pull off.
Favreau, 47, made his mark in 1996 as the writer and co-star, with pal Vince Vaughn, of Doug Liman’s hipster hit “Swingers.” Off that, Favreau scored more acting gigs (“Deep Impact,” TV’s “Rocky Marciano”), directed TV movies (“Smog,” “Life on Parole”) and produced and hosted the IFC celebrity talk show “Table for Five.” He also wrote and directed his first indie feature, the 2001 gangster comedy “Made,” co-starring Vaughn, which landed him a gig directing New Line Cinema’s 2003 holiday comedy “Elf.” The $33 million movie was another surprise smash, grossed $173 million and launched Will Ferrell’s career as a comedy star.
“Elf” also established Favreau as a seriously gifted director. But he knew that to make the best of his move from the indie minors to the big show, he must choose wisely. For a time, acting took a back seat to directing, though Favreau did agree to co-star in Vaughn’s production “The Break-Up,” and plays a supporting role in the "Iron Man" series as Tony Stark's bodyguard. He likes being on control, you see. And to his agency’s chagrin, Favreau turned down a tall stack of comedy scripts.
Sticking to his beloved sci-fi fantasy universe worked out for director Favreau--except for "Cowboys & Aliens." But clearly, directing high-stakes big-budget tentpoles has taken its toll on the man. Before heading back to that universe with Warner Bros.' "The Jungle Book," based on Rudyard Kipling's wonderful Indian stories (about Mowgli the human wolf cub, Bagheera the panther, Baloo the bear, and the dangerous tiger Shere Khan), he indulged himself with a feel-good low-budget comedy that mixed his food obsessions with his conflicts about parenting.
Much like James L. Brooks' "Spanglish" or Pixar's "Ratatouille," Favreau throws his issues with critics, career insecurity, his weight, social media, and parenting into a messy road movie with his 10-year-old son. Ironically, while his Luddite chef Carl Casper gets into trouble on the internet --this movie plays like a product placement for Twitter--Favreau is an ace tweeter with 1.66 million followers.
"I shoot food like Michael Bay shoots babes in bikinis," Favreau told me at the rooftop opening night party at the Mohawk, where Gary Clarke, Jr. performed, as he does in the movie. Also at the party was Koreatown chef and Anthony Bourdain fave Roy Choi, who consulted on how to make authentic this world of grilled cheese and sausage sandwiches and gourmet food trucks. Choi said that most movies make kitchens look "too pretty. You don't have bell peppers stacked in pyramids. We wanted to show real life, down and dirty, plastic deli containers."
I recommend seeing the movie on a full stomach--Favreau admitted to using "Eat Drink Man Woman" as a model for how to make audiences salivate. By the time the road movie winds through New Orleans and Austin, Texas --to cheers from the SXSW crowd--when Favreau slices into a slab of meat fresh from the oven at Franklin's BBQ my stomach was growling.
The movie is enjoyable, full of chuckles, a tad sentimental when it comes to the divorced father-son road movie fantasy and deliriously in love with food. Favreau employs a loose improv style with multiple cameras and shows an easy rapport with newcomer Emjay Anthony, but the film could use one more editing pass. Sofia Vergara is lovely on the eyes but a tad stiff as a film actress; both her and Johansson's roles are underwritten.