Jon Favreau Gets Back To Basics With Tepid "Chef"

Twenty years into his career, writer-director Jon Favreau has done it all, from unlikely indie hits (“Swingers”), to holiday season mainstays (“Elf”), to big-budget triumphs (“Iron Man”), and even bigger budget debacles (“Cowboys & Aliens”). Few filmmakers have had such dynamic careers without attaining household name status, but Favreau has remained under the radar, all the while nursing a healthy acting career. That kind of volatility is bound to take its toll, so his latest, “Chef,” is an unsurprising swipe at the reset button. It’s a small-scale, return-to-roots comedy intended to remind both Favreau and audiences why he became a commodity in the first place. It succeeds on one of two counts, playing like it was a joy to make. The end result isn’t quite as heartening.

Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a beloved but increasingly passionless chef. What was once a burning obsession for food has become less than a spark, a drop-off that’s clouded his relationship with his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), and now ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara). His support system is in tatters, consisting only of his good-hearted but immature kitchen underlings, Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Cannavale), his famous stubbornness slowly eroding into a malaise. It’s unclear if a family life in disrepair has sapped him of his enthusiasm or vice versa, but his life has become a directionless one, expertly depicted in an abruptly edited sequence in which Carl goes through the motions of being a father.

This is all very clearly a metaphor for Favreau’s career, and his deeply personal connection to the material drives the first half of the film – particularly a subplot in which Carl faces down an ornery food critic (Oliver Platt, who unexpectedly runs away with all of his scenes). An explosive confrontation between the two is as affecting as anything the filmmaker has ever put to film. For a while, at least, the drama nicely complements Favreau’s understated comedic sensibilities – a juxtaposition that had become entirely absent in his big budget outings.

Early on, Favreau surrounds himself some of his industry friends, affording the project a parade of stars typically reserved for the kinds of films he’s used to making. Scarlett Johansson supports as Molly, the restaurant’s maitre d’ and Carl’s occasional, reluctant romantic partner, Dustin Hoffman as his tyrannical boss, and an unusually smarmy Robert Downey Jr. shows up briefly as Inez’s other ex-husband. The film is light enough to sustain the weight of such extended cameos, never leaning too heavily on any single supporting character to keep things engaging. That, Favreau leaves to himself.

His agreeable screen presence proves indispensable as the slight narrative only grows slighter. When Carl moves on from his restaurant gig, ultimately running with Inez’s suggestion of buying a food truck, “Chef” becomes exceptionally shaggy in its storytelling, eschewing the conflict of the first act and, with it, its edge. Also gone is much of the supporting cast, never to return. The father-son relationship takes center stage, devolving into formula and general aimlessness. Deep is the irony that sees a film lose its focus just as its protagonist is finding his, but “Chef” is that kind of conundrum. The film expects us to accept the most shopworn of self-discovery cliches, all while passing judgment on characters it sees as unconcerned with unfettered creativity.

When it comes to all things culinary, “Chef” is mostly a delight, although its occasional food snobbery might leave some cold. But it finds undeniable electricity in its cooking scenes, summoning far more energy than James L. Brook’s comparable 2004 foodie pic, “Spanglish.” While that film – featuring a rare dramatic turn for Adam Sandler – was more emotionally powerful, it flubbed its life-as-a-cook premise. But “Chef” is undoubtedly one coherent piece, mostly doing its premise justice, as overlong as it is at an unwieldy 2 hours.

What Favreau’s film lacks in drama it makes up for in passion, its lethargic second act notwithstanding. And even though its father-son dynamic is all too familiar, both Favreau and Anthony are good at selling it, never content to let unimaginative story machinations define their characters. Favreau the actor is the best ally of Favreau the filmmaker, a benefit he hasn’t afforded himself since “Swingers,” and one can only hope that he moves forward utilizing his entire skill set as often as possible. “Chef” might not be the return to form that Favreau and his fans were hoping for, but it’s a gentle reminder of his charm, a charm that’s gone unattended for far too long.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: May 9, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Open Road Films
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr.
Genre: Comedy
MPAA Rating: R (for language, including some suggestive references)