Jon Favreau's aggressively pleasant film packs on-trend topics into a cross-country tale of breaking away to pursue one's passion
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 23, 2014
Food, glorious food! Whatever else it does or doesn't do, "Chef," Jon Favreau's good-natured culinary comedy, works as an appetite stimulant. And where there's delicious food - plenty is shown being prepared, served and devoured - there's life.
The movie, which Favreau wrote and directed, is a self-conscious return to the small-scale indie values of his early films, like "Swingers" and "Made," although it is stuffed with stars, including Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Dustin Hoffman in cameo roles. This back-to-my roots fable can even be read as Favreau's apologia after his 2011 tent-pole flop, "Cowboys & Aliens."
Whatever the reasons for Favreau's retreat from the tent, he makes an agreeably blustery tour guide in a road movie that begins in Los Angeles, relocates to Miami, then returns to the West Coast by way of tasty stopovers in New Orleans and Austin, Texas. Through it all, Favreau's gruff, roly-poly character, Carl Casper, a high-end Los Angeles chef whose ascent to gastronomic stardom is abruptly ended by a snooty restaurant critic, never loses his enthusiasm for cooking, eating and living.
In this shallow but enjoyable all-American morality play, Carl falls but rises, chastened, to pursue happiness and fulfillment operating a food truck whose specialty is Cuban sandwiches. Those sandwiches, the movie tells us none too convincingly, are far tastier and more wholesome than the carefully arranged, high-priced elaborate dishes Carl created in his heyday.
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"Chef" arrives at an opportune moment for a hearty celebration of the putatively redemptive joys of downward mobility. The movie exalts the superiority of inexpensive real food, served on the street, for real people in the American melting pot. Only when Carl forsakes his lofty ambitions does he begin to cook food he "believes in."
The major complaint of the critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), with whom Carl fights a losing war of words on Twitter, is that Carl is stuck in a rut that has robbed his cuisine of its soul. But as played by Platt, Ramsey is not the poisonous Addison DeWitt of the food world but a mild-mannered epicurean with a sharp literary tongue.
No one is a villain in this aggressively feel-good movie. On the evening Ramsey appears, Carl is pressured by the restaurant's owner (Hoffman) not to follow his instincts and experiment but to serve the same-old, same-old dishes; he is predictably pilloried on Ramsey's blog. Making matters infinitely worse, Carl, who is naive about social media, is brought up short when his venomous response to the review goes viral and is followed by an angry face-to-face encounter with Ramsey that is captured on diners' smartphones.
The melting pot in "Chef" is not theoretical. Carl's ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), who encourages him to start over with a food truck, is a Latina. Both Los Angeles and Miami are buzzing, multicultural hubs in which Carl's unfamiliarity with Spanish is a disadvantage. And Carl is so likable that his Hispanic line cook (John Leguizamo) follows him to Miami and acts as a middleman and interpreter for day laborers who had ignored him when he asked them for help setting up the truck.
If "Chef," in its second half, is little more than a glorified travelogue, it is buoyed by a terrific soundtrack that mixes salsa, soul music and country blues with Caribbean styles. That said, the movie's exploration of multiculturalism isn't any deeper than that of an average episode of "Modern Family."
A sentimental subplot involves Carl's relationship with his partly estranged 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), who becomes his social media tutor. Once Carl has time to spend with the boy, "Chef" tells a standard father-son bonding story in which a devoted dad passes on his wisdom. "Chef" believes in work, and as father and son scour and spruce up a battered taco truck that Inez's wealthy first husband (Downey) gives Carl, the film earns points by eschewing magical thinking and showing the intensive labor behind the rattletrap's transformation into a jazzy-looking mobile kitchen.
Food trucks, Twitter wars and salsa music: "Chef" has its pinkie on the pulse of the moment.
Review by Stephen Holden, New York Times