* * * 1/2
The very definition of a crowd-pleaser, Jon Favreau’s Chef is as amiable and enjoyable a comedy as in recent memory, and one that ultimately works on sweetness and a solidly charming performance from its writer/director/star, whose film has real heart and big laughs.
Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) is a once-famed guru of a tony LA restaurant who experiences a dramatic fall from grace after a snarky food critic (Oliver Platt) delivers a scathing review. While he finds comfort in the friendships of a bohemian hostess (a very appealing Scarlett Johansson) and his fellow line chefs (John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale), he is blissfully ignorant about social media, setting off a public firestorm after engaging his nemesis in a Twitter brawl, which doesn’t sit well with the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman).
Casper also has a successful ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and a young son (Emjay Anthony), with whom he shares an on and off relationship, too myopically devoted to his job to notice that the boy quietly misses his dad.
After resigning from the restaurant and on the advice of his ex, they hit the road to Miami, as a family, and his real quest for self-actualization begins upon acquiring a broken-down food truck from very funny entrepreneur Robert Downey Jr., setting the stage for some father-son bonding and the road (trip) to redemption.
What also comes into shape is the film’s raison d’être, a father-son reunification story initially about disconnects (the kid is a super-whiz with social media and does stellar PR for their new venture) but gradually something surprisingly touching, Favreau opening his heart in the final reel with a sweetness he’s had all the way back to his writing and acting debut in 1996’s Swingers.
For Favreau, Chef is a very personal picture, and one containing a blistering rail against (movie) critics, an obvious indictment of the knee-jerk online blogging community which has dismissed Favreau by turns throughout his career, particularly for two less fortunate commercial outings, Cowboys and Aliens and Iron Man 2. Early in the picture, he’s written himself a pointed and angry scene of confrontation with Platt’s dismissive journo, and after he gets that out of his system, Casper slowly rises from the ashes to create something personal and very special—just as Favreau has done with this picture.
Famed food truck chef Roy Choi served as an advisor on the film, and indeed the movie really takes flight once Casper and son, joined by the wily Leguizamo, get that “El Jefe” truck into shape and start selling Cuban sandwiches in South Beach, ground up.
There’s also an enjoyable travelogue here as the food truck travels from Ocean Drive to Bourbon Street to Austin and then back to LA, where Favreau manages some warm final scenes of family reunification and a professional reemergence, which play like wish fulfillment but no matter. Vergara, especially, projects a relaxed appeal here, most of her typically exaggerated comic persona downplayed.
For all of its food-porn creations and mouthwatering culinary creations, what makes Chef work is Favreau’s whip-smart comic timing and ability to deliver big laughs and real emotions. In a perfect world, Favreau would be considered for year-end notices—his performance is that good.