Jon Favreau’s Chef is predictable and pleasing

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Jon Favreau (shown here alongside Sofia Vergara) wrote, directed, and stars in Chef, a foodie friendly big screen comedy about restaurant career navigation. Publicity photo Jon Favreau (shown here alongside Sofia Vergara) wrote, directed, and stars in Chef, a foodie friendly big screen comedy about restaurant career navigation. Publicity photo

Sometimes it’s nice to see a nice movie. “Nice” is a bad word—it’s usually reserved for people who are inoffensive but undatable or your grandmother’s ruminations on her flower garden—but occasionally the word just works. “Nice” is a good description of Chef, writer-director Jon Favreau’s return to smaller stories after the gargantuan (and flat, and wearisome) Cowboys & Aliens.

Favreau is Carl Casper, an amiable but sullen once-hot executive chef at a Los Angeles restaurant who’s feeling stifled by owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman, walking a fine line between empathetic and sleazy). When an influential food critic and one-time fan of Carl’s work comes to review the restaurant, Riva informs Carl he must stick to the menu, which is chic-bland, and not branch out.

So Carl gives critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) the stuff on the menu, and the review is predictably horrible. That sets Carl off on a series of bad decisions. He starts a Twitter account with the help of his 10-year-old son, Percy (a fine Emjay Anthony), and tweets at Michel, not realizing that tweets are public.

Next: Twitter war. Carl offers to cook a new menu for Michel, who accepts the invitation, but Riva again refuses to let Carl make changes. Carl bails on the second review, and makes things much, much worse when he storms into the restaurant and gives Michel a verbal lashing that ends up on YouTube.

With no job and nothing to lose, Carl takes a trip to Miami with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara), and Percy. A late-night Cuban sandwich (with Inez’s gentle encouragement that he makes better sandwiches) leads Carl to acquire a beater food truck from Inez’s ex-husband (Robert Downey, Jr.). If it sounds like Carl is getting back to his roots by cooking food he loves, you’re on the right track.

Chef is highly predictable, but in the end that doesn’t really matter. What comes across is a genuine love of food (which Favreau has talked about in interviews) and the joy of doing a job that makes a person happy. It’s not much of a stretch to think Chef is also a reaction to the box office disappointment of Cowboys & Aliens, a big-
budget and highly impersonal misfire. Here Favreau is doing something at which he excels: Writing compelling, flawed characters who are overcoming personal and professional misfortune.

Not everything is perfect. The screenplay, like its characters, is flawed; Scarlett Johansson appears briefly as the front-of-house manager at Carl’s L.A. restaurant, and there’s a glossed-over and dropped subplot that hinges on their maybe-past relationship. I use “maybe” because it’s not clear. What’s also unclear is why Carl and Inez split up. Riva is just a device to push the plot forward.

These are minor gripes. Favreau creates such a feeling of goodwill that it’s easy to forget the script needed a polish. He’s excellent, as is John Leguizamo as his best friend and head line cook, and so is Bobby Canavale as Carl’s sous-chef. When the ending comes, it feels a little abrupt, but given what Carl goes through, why not end quickly, and happily ever after? Chef is too nice to grumble.

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