115 min., rated R.
Leave it to Jon Favreau, who made a name for himself by writing and co-starring in the 1996 indie hit "Swingers" and progressed into directing big-budgeted, action-packed tentpoles like the first two "Iron Man" movies, to go back to his roots with a more personal project. Infused with more passion than any event a behemoth studio could offer, the food- and character-driven "Chef" feels like a rejuvenating move on Favreau's part, as well as a semiautobiographical response to his own career. As writer, director, and star, he easily could have gotten carried away with self-indulgence, but instead serves up a funny, entertaining crowd-pleaser and antidote to summer special effects. No one will be questioning if anyone's heart is in it.
For ten years, Carl Casper (Favreau) has been a master chef at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant who begins to realize he's at a crossroads in his life, personally and professionally. He's no longer with wife Inez (Sofía Vergara), although they remain civil, and tries to spend time with his 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony). Carl has a good thing going, working with his old friends, grill chef Martin (John Leguizamo) and sous chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale), and sometimes hooking up with floor manager/sommelier Molly (Scarlett Johansson), but he's tired of listening to owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman), who insists he stick to the same menu. Once Carl receives a scathing review from acclaimed food blog critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), he asks Percy to get him an account on Twitter in which an insulting invitation asking Ramsey to return and try his new menu goes viral. As he and and his kitchen staff prepare for the night, Carl goes into defense mode in a verbal skirmish with Riva and leaves the restaurant for good. Knowing what he's good at and learning to be his own boss, Carl ends up taking his ex's advice, opening up a food truck that specializes in cuban sandwiches, and hitting the road with Percy.
If "Chef" sounds like middlebrow formula, that's because it is. Even if that's the case, it doesn't mean the film doesn't go down delightfully like a delicious meal. Careful not to slather on the hoary absentee-father-late-to-pick-son-up-from-school clichés with a trowel, writer-director Jon Favreau's script is both amiable and sharp. More interesting than the family stuff, not that Carl and Percy's father-and-son relationship doesn't endear, is how Carl's professional life is affected. Like any artist, he is plagued by financial troubles, sour criticism, and a job that doesn't let his creative juices flow anymore. Carl needs to love what he's doing, or else, why not pick a different career path? The film also smartly handles social media, particularly Twitter, when Carl jumps the gun in sending comeback Tweets that he thinks are private messages (the tweeting sound effects of a Twitter tweet fluttering away are an amusing touch).
Leading the way himself as Carl, Favreau is an unheralded comedic and dramatic actor, finessing some paternal warmth, comedic improv chops, and character dimension into the part. Though this is Carl's story, the writer-director-star has filled every supporting character with an irresistible revolving door of actors. Seldom given the chance to slow down her line deliveries, tone down the accent ten notches, and play a role straight that isn't a caricature, Sofía Vergara is vivacious and grounded as the encouraging Inez. The fact that divorced parents can still remain friends might be rare, but it's refreshing to see in the Carl-Inez relationship; that their marriage might magically repair itself by film's end is a bit too ideal and sunny, though. As son Percy, Emjay Anthony actually seems like he could be the product of Favreau and Vergara, and the charming young actor shares a terrifically natural rapport with his make-believe father and never pours on the cloying cuteness. A lively John Leguizamo is a lot of fun in the sidekick role of Martin, while Bobby Cannavale makes his limited screen time count every time. Having directed them before, Favreau gets nice work out of Scarlett Johansson, who convinces as an edgy hostess and shares a relaxed chemistry with her director, and a hilariously loose Robert Downey Jr. in about five minutes' worth of time as Inez's surprisingly helpful ex-ex-husband. It's also a treat to see Oliver Platt and Dustin Hoffman, both of whom bring a few shadings to bare roles, and Amy Sedaris is amusingly dead-on as a yappy, over-tanned publicist.
Paired with savory food, Latin-flavored music, heart and spiky bite, the film has such a light touch and comfortable, easy-going vibe that it's easy to overlook its overlength. Not to mention, how everything comes together might be a bit on the tidy, Hollywoodized side, but that's a minor misstep for what is guaranteed to be a sleeper hit of the early-summer movie season. Sumptuously shot during the food preparation scenes, or food porn, the film will make one's mouth water and tummy rumble, as the camera pours over every beautifully presented dish and even a buttered-up grilled cheese sandwich that looks deluxe. At the risk of sounding like a pun machine, "Chef" is a tasty, enormously likable concoction that'll leave you satisfied, overjoyed, and craving some hot-and-ready take-out upon exiting the theater.
Grade: B +