“Chef” is an agreeable, low-stakes comedy about a middle-aged workaholic making a mid-career course correction. It’s a refreshing change of pace from typical summer fare, a story not framed around the skeleton of an old TV series or designed as a tie-in to Hasbro toys.
Tellingly, it comes from Jon Favreau, whose Marvel blockbusters have done a lot to perpetuate just that kind of generic moviemaking.
Favreau directed, wrote and stars in this breezy comedy as L.A. celebrity chef Carl Casper. He makes a plush living but his days of bold creativity are a dimming memory. He runs the raucous assembly-line kitchen of his boss’ upscale restaurant with craftsmanship and precision. What’s lacking is imagination. Dustin Hoffman, as the restaurant owner, makes practical, persuasive arguments about serving clients food they recognize. How would Carl feel, he asks, if he went to a Stones concert and they didn’t play “Satisfaction”?
What makes a talented person special, however, is his urge to innovate, a desire Carl must quash to work at this level. It’s clear that the story is a reflection of Favreau’s moviemaking career, beginning with the brash promise of “Swingers,” delighting the mainstream with “Elf” and the first two “Iron Man” films, then stumbling hard with the pandering “Cowboys and Aliens.” Here he makes light, jaunty fun of his own fall from grace.
When a persnickety food critic (Oliver Platt) pans Carl’s uninspired fare, the chef launches a Twitter feud that backfires, harming his own reputation. His path to rehabilitation is a return to basics. With the help of his right-hand cook (John Leguizamo) and his seldom-seen 10-year-old son (the charming Emjay Anthony), Carl road-trips across the South in a food truck. It’s a journey of redemption, rebuilding his gastronaut cred one grilled Cubano sandwich at a time.
It’s to the film’s credit that most of its story is assembled from fresh ingredients, not canned soups and packaged mixes. Favreau’s too smart to create cardboard antagonists to make Carl look better. The film doesn’t dismiss the food critic’s review as envy or malice, but legitimate judgment of subpar work. It presents Carl’s retaliation as thin-skinned petulance.
The film’s pacing is just about perfect, with a great supporting cast dipping in for a couple of scenes apiece. Scarlett Johansson brings an offhand charm to her role as a harried restaurant hostess. Bobby Cannavale plays a fair-weather friend on the kitchen staff, and Robert Downey Jr. gives the film a jolt of star power as the ex of Favreau’s ex. The scene where Favreau must negotiate with this wealthy jackass for backing on his rolling restaurant is fine, fast-volleying improv comedy. And the Miami-to-L.A. excursion plays like a vacation, with generous portions of Latin music, dancing and great regional food. This is, if not lifestyle porn, at least a trip to third base.
“Chef” fails to dig very deep into Carl’s personality. We never learn why he split from his still-adoring ex-wife, played by Sofía Vergara. Does he have an arrogant streak, an overactive libido, a weakness for intoxicants? We never see a serious defect except his tunnel-vision passion for food.
Favreau should have trusted his innate likability and made Carl less of a paragon. Flawed characters can make for compelling comedy. Keeping the tone relentlessly bright makes “Chef” more of a palate-cleanser than a feast. It’s not a very funny movie but undeniably a very nice one.