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For a movie that’s centered on the effort to construct an innovative new restaurant menu, “Le Chef” is made up of some pretty stale ingredients. That’s not to say that it doesn’t provide a few amusing incidental moments. Overall, though, it’s a fairly formulaic affair that piles up the clichés so thick by the end that it pretty much collapses under the weight.

Jean Reno is Alexandre Lagarde, the renowned chef of the three-star Cargo Lagarde in Paris, famous not only for his cuisine but for his cookbooks and television program. But young, profit-oriented Stanslas (Julien Boisselier) has recently assumed oversight of the restaurant from his father Paul (Pierre Vernier), the wealthy owner who’s moved into a retirement home. And he pressures Alexandre not only to allow him to modernize the place, but to create a new menu that will satisfy critics looking for something more innovative than Lagarde’s been serving—especially the current fad for molecular gastronomy. When Alexandre resists, Stanislas points out that if the restaurant loses a star in the upcoming guide, their contract will allow him to fire Lagarde. And he undertakes to sabotage the chef’s chances by transferring core staff and cutting off his usual food suppliers.

Enter Jacky Bonnot (Michael Youn), an eager fellow who’s trained himself on Lagarde’s books but can’t hold a job because of his fanaticism about being true to them: he insists on serving dishes more meat-and-potatoes customers don’t like, and instructing them loudly about what wine goes with them. Repeatedly fired as a result, he finds himself forced by his pregnant girlfriend Beatrice (Raphaelle Agogue) to take a maintenance job at the very old folks’ home where Paul lives. Inevitably he helps the likably goofy kitchen staff there to cook Lagarde cuisine for the residents, and when Alexandre visits, he discovers Jacky’s talent and invites him to take the position of his second-in-command.

From that point things proceed rather predictably, though writer-director Daniel Cohen and his fellow scribe Olivier Dazat toss lots of subplots into the mixing bowl. One involves the fact that Jacky keeps his change of employment from Beatrice, who’s demanding that he become responsible (and can’t stand liars besides). Another has to do with Alexandre’s daughter, who’s resentful that she’s always played second fiddle to his work and is expecting him to attend her dissertation defense, which is scheduled for the very day the critics are expected at the restaurant.

But most of the hilarity is supposed to spring from Alexandre and Jacky’s attempt to get along while constructing a menu that will retain the restaurant’s third star. The chemistry between the two actors isn’t really explosive, but mostly their relationship is genial enough. The situations they’re put into, on the other hand, are distinctly hit-and-miss. An episode in which they invite Juan (Santiago Segura), a master of molecular cuisine, to teach them the technique, is fairly amusing. On the other hand, the sequence in which the two disguise themselves as Japanese diplomats to spy on the dishes at the fashionable place run by Cyril Boss (James Gerard), the chef Stanislas us eying as Alexandre’s replacement, is cringe-worthy in its ethnic tastelessness.

Of course, “Le chef” winds up with Alexandre and Jacky getting everything they want but still bickering, and Stanislas getting his comeuppance. Except for that Japanese sequence, Reno ambles though his part amiably, but Youn’s dippy, wide-eyed turn gets tedious after pretty quickly. The rest of the cast gets by, though no one stands out among them. Some of the best work, in fact, comes from the technical crew. Production designer Hugues Tissandier and cinematographer Robert Fraisse make the film very easy on the eye, and composer Nicola Piovani has confected an upbeat score that’s often more enjoyable than the action it’s commenting on. On the other hand, even while trimming the picture down to a mere eighty minutes, Geraldine Retif’s editing can’t keep it from feeling padded.

The result is a cinematic meal that goes down fairly easily, but isn’t tasty enough to be memorable.


The sleight of hand proves all too slight in Woody Allen’s latest, which despite the title doesn’t prove particularly magical. “Magic in the Moonlight” is a stiffly-choreographed period piece that works hard to be charming but comes across as a highly derivative reiteration of the theme Allen’s treated in so many of his movies—the dichotomy between faith and reason in the broadest sense. And one hopes that Allen intends its apparent message that self-delusion isn’t so bad if it can help us survive the reality of a not-very-nice world to be undercut by situating the story in 1928, when the comfortable circumstances of its characters were soon to be demolished by catastrophic economic collapse.

The skeptical grouch at the center of the piece is Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), a renowned British magician who performs under heavy Oriental makeup and the stage name of Wei Ling-soo. He’s also, like Houdini, a heavy-duty debunker of spiritualists, and so when his longtime friend and colleague Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks for his help exposing one, he’s easily persuaded. He’s soon off to the Riviera, where attractive young self-styled psychic Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), accompanied by her businesslike mother (Marcia Gay Harden), has so completely won over wealthy Grace (Jackie Weaver) that the dowager is about to endow a foundation to support her paranormal activities. And Grace’s vacuous son Brice (Hamish Linklater) is so smitten with Sophie that he’s taken to serenading her endlessly on his ukulele and discussing where they might go on their honeymoon.

Where matters go from there is about as predictable as one can get. Stanley’s crusty old heart begins to melt under Sophie’s exuberant American charm, and his skepticism starts to dissolve in the face of his inability to discern the tricks behind her act. An accident that befalls his beloved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), who also lives in the area and serves as his no-nonsense confidante, pushes him further toward the notion that perhaps he’s been wrong all these years in his summary dismissal of all things beyond the scope of mundane reality.

Of course all of that has romantic consequences. Though Stanley has an agreeable relationship with the equally down-to-earth Olivia (Catherine McCormack) back home, he finds himself irresistibly attracted to Sophie. The last act of the movie, in which the girl—who’s earned his earlier scorn as a result of her ignorance of people like Nietzsche—becomes the object of his, dare one say, irrational longing owes more than a bit to “My Fair Lady”—indeed, the last scene copies Loewe to such an extent that you half-expect Crawford to burst out singing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

But it doesn’t work as well as it did for Lerner & Loewe, because Allen and Firth haven’t been able to bestow the same measure of humanity on Stanley as Moss Hart and Rex Harrison did on Henry Higgins. Firth is ordinarily a most agreeable presence even when he’s pretending to be hard-hearted, but here he comes across merely as pompous and mean, spitting out his put-downs of others with a sneer unrelieved by any redeeming quality. His aunt may have to suffer his nastiness with a smile, but it doesn’t bring one to the face of anybody viewing his behavior from a detached distance. Stone, by contrast, is bubbly and attractive, especially in the costumes provided her by Sonia Grande (who does an expert job with all the period dress, just as production designer Anne Seibel, art director Jean-Yves Rabier and set decorator Jille Azis do in terms of the visuals overall). But there’s never any real chemistry between the two; the inevitability of their coming together feels like nothing more than a script device, no more natural than the outcome of one of Wei Ling-soo’s elaborate tricks of prestidigitation.

As for the rest of the cast, only Atkins freshens the material. All the others contribute little except not looking totally out-of-place in the period garb and amid the sumptuous locales shot with such loving care in the lush widescreen images of cinematographer Darius Khondji. Unfortunately, the visuals have been assembled with clunky discretion by editor Alisa Lepselter; the picture ambles along without much energy or verve, one talky scene simply following another until the story comes to a halt.

Of course, in an Allen picture it’s mostly the talk that matters, and in the past his witticisms have often overcome narrative banality. Here, however, he seems to have run dry. The dialogue—especially that delivered by Firth—offers a lot of what are supposed to be zingers, but they mostly fall flat. Too often one finds himself simply admiring the scenery while the story trudges leadenly along to a revelation about the central trick in the movie that should come as a surprise to nobody (though it does offer one of the movie’s few clever visual touches).

Allen’s gotten by with piffle before simply by dressing it up with engaging characters and clever words, but both elements are in short supply this time around. “Magic in the Moonlight” is like a trick in which the mechanics are all too discernible and the finale a let-down.