Chef is one of those jobs that many people dream of but not that many would actually want to do. A few hours on the prep line in August would burn away most foodie fantasies quite nicely. Carl Casper, the chef played by Jon Favreau in his post-Iron Man palate cleanser, however, doesn’t have many of those grotty concerns mucking up his pretty perfect life. Surrounded by gorgeous women, delectable food, rowdy friends, and a keen-eyed little moppet of a son just dying for his attention, his only real problems are those notes of discontent twanging in his head.
Subtle and sweet when it’s working, mawkishly obvious when it isn’t, Chef is something like the rattletrap old food truck that Carl eventually finds his soul in. It’s sturdily built and the materials are sound, the servings often delicious, but there’s only so far it can take the story. When we meet Carl, he’s the chef at a respected but staid restaurant and panicking over the impending visit of a poison pen-wielding food critic (Oliver Platt). Given Carl’s distracted pseudo-parenting of his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and the pressure being laid on by the restaurant’s meddling owner (Dustin Hoffman), it wouldn’t take a psychoanalyst to determine that Carl’s meltdown after the critic pans his food isn’t just about the review. A flame war erupts, culminating in Carl’s spittle-flecked anti-critic rant — every director deserves to do at least one of these in their career — that makes him a star on the internet but a swiftly unemployable one.
Most films would have dispensed with this opening scenario in ten minutes or so of frenetic, churning comedy and then spent the rest of the film brick-building toward redemption. Favreau is a more patient filmmaker than that. He prefers to hang around in the kitchen, possibly to show off his decent knife and plating skills, but also to savor the aromas of that companionable group ritual of making and eating food together. It doesn’t hurt that Favreau braced Carl with roustabout sidekicks like John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale, who could probably get a good laugh reading lists of ingredients just as well as they could from Favreau’s script. There’s also Scarlett Johansson wafting through as the hostess with a heart of gold, there to shore up Carl’s spirits and help get him back on the right track; as seemingly every other character in the film is determined to do.
Eventually, Chef ambles over to Miami, ostensibly to accompany his wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and son Percy (Emjay Anthony). But really, the action moves to Miami to provide him with an excuse to get into a food truck and start serving cubanos; not to mention deliver up a beside-the-point but elegant little scene in which a serenely devilish Robert Downey Jr. (playing another ex-husband of Inez’s), plays mind games with Carl. Before you know it, Carl is driving cross-country with Percy and Martin (Leguizamo), building a reputation from their food through Percy’s continual tweeting.
As a gourmet road-trip self-reinvention feel-good story, Chef works just fine. It also doesn’t spend too much time on the high-end dishes; any film that pays this much attention to the creation of the perfect grilled cheese deserves some respect. Still, the whole thing has the whiff of something that’s been sitting in the drawer for a few years; the idea of upscale taco trucks as some mobile foodie revolution and all the “What’s Twitter?” talk doesn’t precisely smell fresh. So many of the film’s stylized tweets fly away on trademarked-looking little blue birds that it starts to feel like a feature-length advertisement for microblogging. That, combined with the script’s lack of concern over introducing anything in the way of real drama, makes for a film that’s often seriously lacking in urgency.
Chef also can’t resist slathering on the life lessons around whenever Carl and Percy spend any time together. It’s a rangy and attractively odd comedy when it wants to be; a labored odyssey about one chef’s desire to return to his younger and more adventurous self when it’s not. Only a little more risk would have made something out of this film. With such a broad and frankly awesome support network (it’s hard to find somebody here who isn’t rooting for him), the only surprise this film might have come up with would be if Carl had not succeeded.
The DVD/Blu-ray includes deleted scenes and a commentary track from Favreau and Roy Choi.