Here is your first tip for enjoying “Chef,” a breezy new comedy by writer/director/star Jon Favreau: Don’t go on an empty stomach. T
By Noah Gittell
Here is your first tip for enjoying “Chef,” a breezy new comedy by writer/director/star Jon Favreau: Don’t go on an empty stomach. The film, about a successful chef at an upscale Los Angeles restaurant who ditches it all to open a food truck, is filled with sumptuous images of all things palatable, from fine dining to comfort food. Fill your belly before entering the theater, or the hunger pangs will distract you from a very enjoyable, refreshingly personal summer movie.
It is the perfect antidote to the big-budget, slam-bang action blockbusters that dominate our multiplexes this time of year. In “Chef,” the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, but the personal stakes make it feel that way. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a successful chef who gets into a war of words with a snarky food critic (Oliver Platt) after a bad review. Casper confronts the critic in public, and the incident, captured on a camera phone and uploaded to YouTube, goes viral. His boss (Dustin Hoffman) fires him, but it is a blessing in disguise. At the urging of his pleasant ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), Casper opens a food truck specializing in Cuban comfort food and rediscovers his authentic artistic voice.
If any of this feels familiar, it’s because the arc of Carl Casper mirrors that of Favreau’s own career. He started small with the low-budget but highly successful “Swingers,” then turned to directing successful studio pictures like “Iron Man “and “Elf.” After a couple of critical and commercial failures (“Zathura” and “Cowboys and Aliens”), he has now turned away from big movies and made something in his own voice. In other words, “Chef” is Favreau’s own food truck. The small scale of the film allows Faverau’s personal voice to come through, and all of the ingredients — humor, passion, and heart — that made “Swingers” such a success are present here.
Even the male camaraderie that defined his early work finds its way into “Chef,” albeit in a much more family-friendly manner. Inspired by Casper’s authenticity, his old sous chef (John Leguizamo) joins him on the truck. So does Casper’s 10-year-old son. When the three of them ride from Miami to Los Angeles (stopping in great food towns like New Orleans and Austin), the films coasts on an improvisational nature, with the three very different males riffing like a real family.
As a director, Favreau has often been accused of riding on the coattails of some very talented performers. For “Elf,” he managed to snag a rising television actor named Will Ferrell, and in “Iron Man,” he happened to find a down-on-his-luck actor named Robert Downey Jr. But Favreau deserves credit for putting them in positions to succeed, and in “Chef,” he wrote the part perfectly suited to his own particular set of acting skills.
Chefs always have an odd juxtaposition in their personalities: they are sensitive artists at heart, but a commercial kitchen is a haven for alpha-male hijinxs. Favreau embodies both of these traits (his vulnerable performance in “Swingers” became an oft-imitated archetype for sensitive guys, but his large, hulking form has allowed him to play football players and bodyguards), and his relaxed, lived-in performance is the glue that keeps the often-predictable plot humming.
Just because the film is personal, however, doesn’t mean Favreau is doing any soul-searching. “Chef” may be about important things – art, family, and happiness – but it is relentlessly shallow, and this is Favreau’s persistent flaw. “Swingers” may have been considered part of the indie film movement of the ’90s, but Favreau is a commercial, crowd-pleasing filmmaker at heart, and “Chef” occasionally veers too far deeply into feel-good territory to be plausible. The film’s tone is impossibly sunny, and few of the characters are drawn with any depth. Instead, they all exist to create the mother of happy endings, in which Casper regains everything he had once lost.
Still, with Hollywood applying a cookie-cutter approach to summer filmmaking these days, it’s hard to complain about a film with a genuinely positive and personal message. “Chef” is a well-made and satisfying meal of a film, and no one is going to complain if the dessert is a little too sweet.
My Rating: See it in the Theater