Jon Favreau indulges—or self-indulges—in a cinematic version of cleansing the palate after the big-budget banquets he’s been directing since 2008 (or 2003, if you add “Elf” and “Zathura” to his two “Iron Man” movies and “Cowboys & Aliens”). “Chef” is a small, independent picture, though one chockfull of stars who are friends of Favreau and willing to show up for cameos.
And going a smaller route doesn’t mean that Favreau has lost his instinct for what might appeal to the masses. In an era of rampant TV cooking shows and Twitter mania, he’s fashioned a script that runs on food and social-media jokes, adding a healthy dose of heartwarming (as opposed to heartburning) warmth to the mix in the person of an adorable little boy. It’s a recipe that most audiences will be unable to resist, though by any standard the nutritional value is negligible. And at least cinematic comfort food like this won’t put on pounds.
Favreau stars as Carl Casper, the chunky, fast-talking kitchen king at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant owned by Riva (Dustin Hoffman). Though he’s divorced from beautiful Inez (Sofia Vergara), they’re still on good terms, though his devotion to his work leaves him less time than she’d like with their ten-year old son Percy (Emjay Anthony). The catalyst for change in Carl’s career is a bad review from acerbic online food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), who accuses him of having lost the adventurous spirit that characterized his earlier dishes. It just so happens that his tech-savvy son has just signed him up for Twitter, so Carl posts a nasty response to the review, assuming it will just be sent to Michel. Instead, it goes viral, prompting a return match in the restaurant, where Casper’s rant, picked up on cameraphones, goes viral too. He’s now out of a job, his sous chef (Bobby Cannivale) taking over in his place, and pretty much out of prospects too.
But of course the apparent disaster turns out for the best, because Inez suggests that Carl accompany her and Percy to visit her singer-father in Miami, where another of her exes, Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.), is willing to give him a food truck he can fix up and use as a means of rebuilding. It turns out to be in bad shape, but he bonds with Percy as they clean it up, and things brighten even further when his pal Martin (John Leguizamo) shows up from California, having left his job at the restaurant to join with Carl in what becomes a labor of love—a spruced-up travelling diner specializing in Cuban sandwiches. And the three guys—Carl, Martin and Percy, who’s becoming a grill expert, too—then undertake a road trip back to California, with stops along the way where Percy’s social-media skills draw big crowds of customers. In the end, father and son have bridged the gap between them (as do Carl and Inez), and thanks to the intervention of an unexpected investor, the business takes off in a major way.
There’s a pleasurable looseness to “Chef” that makes it go down easily despite its predictable destination. Favreau and Leguizamo have an easy rapport, tossing jovial insults back and forth, and the relationship between Favreau and Anthony is sweet without getting too cloying. Some of the cameos take off—Downey’s in particular, carries an almost surrealistic charge, though Hoffman and Cannavale have their moments. While Scarlett Johansson, as the maitre d’ at Riva’s, is lovely to look at even if she doesn’t have much to do, Vergara cuts a striking figure as the voluptuous but good-hearted Inez. Platt, meanwhile, underplays nicely as the food critic who turns out not to be quite the ogre he initially seems. In fact, everybody’s nice in the end.
That could be said of the movie, too, which ambles along, taking time for extended stops in New Orleans and Austin to allow visits to restaurants and musical numbers (also a highlight of the Miami sequence). A lengthy gag involving a celebrity-mad Miami cop (Russell Peters) is an obvious digression too. But these pauses, while obviously dilatory, come across as part of the picture’s easygoing rhythm, and in any event Favreau’s high-velocity delivery, especially in tandem with Leguizamo, soon returns to push it along. The technical team contributes to the jaunty mood as well, with cameraman Kramer Morgenthau taking full advantage of locations that look almost as luscious as the food close-ups and of Denise Pizzini’s colorful production design. The soundtrack, with its emphasis on salsa music, also adds to the genially carefree atmosphere.
It has to be said, though, that one might well blanch at the picture’s emphasis on the Twitter motif, especially when sent messages are represented as a flock of little animated bluebirds winging their way out of somebody’s cellphone to destinations everywhere—a device that takes the cuteness quotient into the stratosphere along with them and is bound to get dated pretty fast. (Other social-media outlets like Facebook and Vine are mentioned as well, but without similar oomph.) One might wonder whether such love of texting and tweeting should be encouraged in a theatre, a place where they should definitely be discouraged instead.