Coming off four large-scale, special effects-laden projects in a row (2005's "Zathura
," 2008's "Iron Man
," 2010's "Iron Man 2
," and 2011's "Cowboys & Aliens
"), writer-director Jon Favreau aims to cleanse his palette, so to speak, with "Chef." In his aim to do away with extraterrestrials and superheroes, though, the down-to-earth, character-focused slice-of-life he has concocted is too narratively complacent for its own good. Most films hinge upon conflict, either internal or external but ideally both, to drive a story forward. Without this element, interest dissipates and the question arises as to whether it was a tale worth telling in the first place. Once Carl Casper's (Jon Favreau) mini career crisis works itself out early on, it is smooth sailing from there for a guy lucky enough to find happiness and success through his passion for cooking. There is nothing wrong with "Chef" except that it is so ceaselessly, excessively pleasant. There is only so much humdrum harmony one can take before the film in question grows tedious.
Named Food and Wine
's "Best New Chef," Carl Casper is a divorced dad with a love for culinary preparation. When he receives a scathing review from respected Los Angeles food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), it hits him hard. In retaliation, he sends Ramsey an incendiary Twitter message, one that he intends to be private. Instead, it goes public and viral, the catalyst for a personal crisis of purpose even as Carl's popularity suddenly rises on social media. Tired of cooking stodgy restaurant owner Riva's (Dustin Hoffman) strict menu, he quits his job. Urged by caring ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and her helpful Miami-based other
ex-husband, Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.), Carl starts a food-truck business specializing in Cuban sandwiches. Traveling across the country with devoted employee Martin (John Leguizamo) and 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) by his side, the rolling El Jefe becomes a rousing breakout that just might be the solution to all of Carl's professional uncertainty.
"Chef" is insightful in its deconstruction of critical reviews and the affect they can have beyond the written page or computer screen. Besides his son, Carl loves nothing more than cooking, and when the very thing he has given his life to is marginalized with a personal attack rather than an even-handed assessment, it stings. His friend with benefits, hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson), urges him to stop taking jobs that won't make him happy, while most of the other people in his life, from Inez to Martin, are equally understanding and supportive. When Carl travels to Miami to invest in a food truck, everything starts to fall into place. He bonds with his son, Percy, who helps out during his school break, and becomes a hit in every city where he stops. Even a police officer recognizes him and asks to take pictures with him. Eventually, Percy will have to return to his mother and things will go back to the way they were before, when Carl only got to spend every other weekend with him. It isn't exactly hard-hitting stuff, but the food is appealing, and a grilled cheese he makes for his son early in the film looks out-of-this-world delicious.
It is nice to see Jon Favreau (2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street
") back in a lead role again. He is an innately likable actor and his Carl Casper has very clearly been tailor-made for himself. He fills out the surrounding parts with reliable actors, some enjoying the chance to expand beyond the types they usually play and others so underutilized they are clearly doing a favor for a friend. Sofia Vergara (2013's "Machete Kills
") is best known for her scene-stealing performance as Gloria on TV's "Modern Family," but the movie world never quite knows what to do with her. Because of her Colombian accent and striking exotic look, Hollywood usually stereotypes her as villainous caricatures or comic relief. As Inez, Vergara nicely portrays a more low-key character, one who gets along so swimmingly with Carl it is never exactly clear why they divorced in the first place. As Molly, Scarlett Johansson (2014's "Under the Skin
") shines as she always does in her too-few scenes, but this is a scantly developed role that wholly serves Carl's story and vanishes without a trace by the midway point. Emjay Anthony (2009's "It's Complicated
") is relaxed and natural as young son Percy, while Robert Downey Jr. (2013's "Iron Man 3
"), as Marvin, and Amy Sedaris (2011's "Tanner Hall
"), as gung-ho agent Jen, colorfully show up for cameos.
As sincere and innocuous as the film is, "Chef" is difficult to get excited about. At 115 minutes, Favreau meanders to a destination that can be guessed early on. In the meantime, the picture resembles a well-shot home movie documenting people doing everyday tasks interspersed with lots of Twitter messages and a fly-on-the-wall YouTube video featuring Carl's rant against critic Ramsey. There are jarring lapses in continuitymore than the average professionally produced featurebut this is a minor aside to a more pressing issue: there is simply no forward momentum or anything else impressive enough to capture one's enthusiasm. The most common audience reactions after the fact will be, "Eh, it was all right," and, "I'm hungry."