It pains me to knock Jon Favreau’s “Chef” even a little, because I was pleasantly surprised by a good half of it. It was trim, lean, and tonally strong for almost an hour. But then it decided to get middle-brow schmaltzy, essentially pulling the rug out from under the feet of its audience. The film is so in love with the world of food, and how it’s cooked and served, that I’m still going to recommend “Chef”. But it would’ve been braver and sharper without the hackneyed father-son coming-of-age nonsense, and the relationship mending tripe. Yeah, I know it feels good while it’s happening, but it leaves a bitter aftertaste. The attention paid to the various meats and menus is great stuff, however–and it’s impossible to dismiss.
Carl Casper (Mr. Favreau, who wrote, directed, produced, as well as stars) is a creatively stifled head chef, at a trendy California restaurant. After an established food critic pans his lack of innovation, Casper loses his cool publicly, leaving the owner (a lizardy Dustin Hoffman as Marvin) no choice but to take away his job. Then, with spunk, social media, and a little help from his family and friends, Carl “goes back to his roots”, preparing sumptuous Cuban cuisine, out of a beat-up old food truck, on the streets of his Miami hometown. With his former assistant chef (the multi-talented John Leguizamo as Martin) in tow, along with Carl’s estranged 10-year-old son (a fine Emjay Anthony as Percy), Carl hopes to re-establish his lost culinary “mojo”, and jump-start his stagnant personal and professional life.
The movie neatly parallels Favreau’s own attempts at “going back to basics”, with the similar theme in the film’s plotline. And being that this is truly Favreau’s “baby” that should come as no surprise. And there are some pungent, biting episodes in the first half, that promise a much more substantial feature than “Chef” ultimately turns out to be. But it decides to simply be a crowd-pleaser in the end, inadvertently paralleling the screenplay in reverse. A catering-to-the-masses finale, after a sumptuous beginning. Three other performers also raise the bar. The priceless Bobby Cannavale as Tony, who replaces Carl at the California eatery. And Robert Downey Jr. has a killer cameo as Carl’s ex-wife’s first husband. Also, Oliver Platt provides a great silent moment, as blogger Ramsey Michel. But Sofia Vergara is mostly wasted in a caricature role, while Scarlett Johannson is nearly unrecognizable as an exotic hostess. Overall verdict? Just satisfactory, Jon.