Much has been made over Jon Favreau returning to his indie roots with Chef, and, of course, if you’re comparing the film to an Iron Man outing, then, yeah, it’s pretty indie. But with 20-plus credited producers, executive producers, co-producers and associate producers — not to mention a cast of famous names — it’s clearly on the high-end of indie-ness. The result, in any case, is a small, consistently pleasant movie with a degree of charm. It’s a film that is almost impossible to dislike. It has nice characters, good production values, lots of lovingly photographed and appetizing food — and almost no dramatic tension. This isn’t the movie’s only problem, but it’s the one that keeps it, for me, from being anything more than pleasant. It just never feels like there’s anything really at stake here, making it hard to be all that invested in the characters. Pleasant only takes you so far. At least, it only takes me so far, because a lot of folks seem to love Chef. That’s a leap I can’t make. But others, I suspect, can.
In many ways, Chef is a live-action — and R-rated (mostly for language) — variation on Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007), right down to its nasty food critic (here played by Oliver Platt), albeit one who is treated a bit more fairly. (Bear in mind, a critic just made that assessment.) And like the animated film, it requires the viewer to adapt to certain lapses in reality, especially as concerns business permits, food truck regulations and child labor laws — any one of which might have profitably offered the film a degree of genuine conflict in its particularly meandering second half. Also, not in its favor is Chef’s heavy leaning on social media in general and Twitter in particular (to the point of product placement) — things that will one day make the movie seem quaint, and not in a good way.
Favreau stars as upscale chef Carl Casper, who is also a workaholic, divorced dad. (The workaholic aspect is essential for any neglectful movie dad.) Carl is at loggerheads with his boss (Dustin Hoffman) who insists he stick to the tried-and-true menu — a stance that causes Carl to be raked over the coals by big-noise food blogger Ramsey Michel (Platt). After becoming involved in a Twitter war with Michel, Carl promises to show him a new menu if he’ll come back, but the boss nixes this, demanding the same old thing. Unsurprisingly, Carl quits to strike out on his own. (Any similarity to Favreau breaking away from making big-budget blockbusters with this little film are hardly coincidental.) Since Carl’s very public battle — and meltdown — with Michel, he finds the world isn’t beating a path to his door, leaving Carl no choice but to let his ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), set him up with a food truck in Miami thanks to her first husband, Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.).
Right there, the story pretty much stalls as it sails along a series of predictable events built around driving the food truck back to Los Angeles with his attention-starved son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), and his sous chef, Martin (John Leguizamo). Will Carl and his son bond? Will the food truck (mostly due to Percy’s Twitter campaign) be a success everywhere they go? Will Carl and Inez patch things up? Will there be smiles all around? Will there be a not-very-surprising twist? What do you think? As I noted, it’s all pleasant and good-natured. Some of the casting is a little wasteful — Dustin Hoffman has little to do, and Downey’s role is more odd than funny. There are few big laughs, but the movie has a consistently amusing tone, and that counts for much. Rated R for language, including some suggestive references.