Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is an L.A. chef who made his early rep creating adventurous food but for the past few years has run the kitchen at a more conservative restaurant that pushes the same expert meals each evening. When Carl hears that Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), a food critic and one of Carl's early champions, is to dine there that evening, he dreams up an innovative menu — but is overruled by his boss Riva (Dustin Hoffman) who wants him just to "play your hits." He refuses and is fired. The critic tweets a derisory review, and Carl storms back into the restaurant, unleashing a harangue that other diners record. It goes viral. With no prospects for restaurant work, he must return to his roots and find artistic satisfaction as the owner-chef of a taco food truck.
Jon Favreau is an actor-director who made his early rep writing and producing the excellent buddy film Swingers and later went mainstream as the director of Elf and the first two Iron Man spectacles. He stumbled artistically and financially with the pricey sci-fi Western Cowboys & Aliens, retreating to the shelter of indie films to write, direct and star in Chef.
(READ: Corliss on the macho sensitivity of Jon Favreau's 1996 Swingers)
Replace food with film in the story, and this movie is, at least in metaphor, a naked autobiography — with the Hollywood establishment as Riva, Favreau as Carl and all his critics as The Critic. Chef allows him to acknowledge the compromises of his big-budget films (some of which were quite fine) while chastising the reviewers who didn't appreciate Cowboys & Aliens. It's both a hymn to the passion of a creative artist and a payback to those who callously trample the creator's sensitivity. Yet what's surprising is how ordinarily this declaration of independence plays out.
Favreau turns Carl into an updated version of the working-class hero he played in Rocky Marciano and his 2001 writer-director-star effort Made: still pugnacious but maybe 4o pounds heavier. In the critic's scathing, lopsidedly personal attack on Carl — the rejection letter of an old admirer seething with disappointment — he writes that the chef has become so fat because "he is eating all the food sent back to the kitchen."
In love with, indeed obsessed by, his job, this kitchen magician is a walking museum of tattoos: a carving knife on his right forearm, the letters EL JEFE below his knuckles. Like many back-of-the-restaurant staffers, he'll smoke a cigarette when he gets a break from the complicated, high-pressure grind of preparing fine food quickly. Chef is most engaging when it shows Carl at work, in scenes supervised by Roy Choi, who worked at Manhattan's posh Le Bernardin restaurant before wowing L.A. with his Kogi BBQ Taco Truck. Carl will duplicate Choi's success when he acquires a battered truck in Miami Beach and takes it on the road home through New Orleans and Austin.
Though the milieu is knowledgeable, the movie loses its foodie cred in spots. The critic played by Platt announces his attendance in advance — whereas most of his breed (including Platt's brother Adam, New York magazine's restaurant critic) value their visual anonymity, so they won't get special service. It's also unlikely that Carl would be out of work after his viral blowup. He'd need only explain his circumstances to prospective employers. And if that didn't work, there'd be a whole Food Network awaiting his furious showmanship.
But Favreau is far less interested in narrative logic, or deft at devising it, than were the writers of his Iron Man movies. (That's a peculiarity of modern Hollywood: the fantasy films often boast smarter, more plausible scripts and characters than the indie pictures of supposedly higher IQ.) He wants only to dig a hole for Carl to crawl out of, by taking the extended hand of a child he has ignored. At heart, Chef is a daddy-daycare fable about an overextended man who teaches his 10-year-old son the family business and learns to love him.
Percy Casper (Emjay Anthony) would be hard for even a reprobate father to hate. He's a sweet, bright kid, desperate for any contact with his wandering dad, even if that extends to cleaning the crud out of a dilapidated food truck's drawers. And Anthony has the mature actor's gift of not pushing the winsome charms he possesses.
(READ: Corliss's review of Cowboys & Aliens)
In a supporting cast almost top-heavy with its star quality, Scarlett Johansson radiates almondy glamour and womanly wisdom as Carl's sometime girlfriend at the restaurant. Sofia Vergara is grounded and matter-of-factly sensuous as the ex-wife. (We figure Carl must have some appeal, invisible to the audience, to have landed these two.) John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale hit the proper notes of loyalty and career conflict as Carl's kitchen subordinates. And Robert Downey Jr., Favreau's erstwhile Iron Man, steals a scene, and nearly filches the film, in the role of Vergara's previous ex-husband who gives Carl the old truck that will revive a depressed man's spirits, vocation and family ties.
All these actors, and the audience too, deserved a better, tighter, more daring film. The movie meal that Favreau whips up is easy to sit through but hardly memorable. The narrative spices and textures come less from any savory surprises in character development than from the engaging performers and exotic locales. Chef is a dish of arroz con pollo served with a smile but not much style. The critic in the film would give it a low grade, for agreeability without ambition.