When surveying great instances of culinary cinema — i.e., movies that contain Grade-A food porn — it becomes obvious that I’m assembling a list of all-around terrific films. Babette’s Feast, Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman and Tampopo all preceded the age of foodie fetishism and Food Channel programming, serving up mouth-watering gastronomy with well-nourished narratives.
Writer-actor-director Jon Favreau’s relentlessly pleasant Chef definitely brings the gourmet erotica, offering the gut-teasing image of a knife salaciously slicing through the tender pink flesh of barbecued brisket and a grilled cheese sandwich lovingly slathered with butter and massaged across a hot grill. But when it comes to telling a story, it would be charitable to call Chef shapeless and slight.
Carl Casper (Favreau) is a once-rising chef who cooks middlebrow cuisine for an unimaginative restaurateur (Dustin Hoffman). When a renowned food critic (Oliver Platt) eviscerates his menu in a review, Carl stumbles into a social media war that culminates with a hysterical table-side confrontation. It’s captured on customer cellphones and spread virally across the web, and he quickly finds himself out of a job and without any prospects.
Coaxed into visiting Miami by his ex-wife, Carl ends up getting a food truck, which reignites his passion for cooking. Together with his former motor-mouthed assistant (John Leguizamo), he road-trips across the country, earning a passionate following for his new Cubano-flavored sandwiches and connecting with his neglected 10-year-old son (Emjay Anthony).
Favreau’s engaging first act meanders a bit, but does a decent job of setting up Carl’s laid-back love of cooking and his self-defeating volatility. He’s a whiz with the knife, and the film’s low-key appreciation for culinary artistry is a welcome contrast to the chest-thumping machismo of popular food competition shows. But once the story hits the road and moves into its tension-free second act, Chef plays more like a bouncy Food Channel travel montage than a fully developed drama or character portrait.
Favreau visits Austin and New Orleans, gives us a few glimpses of local flavor, gently strengthens the bonds between Carl and his son, and then moves on. There are no setbacks, conflicts or tests of character. Just long lines of hungry, happy fans. For all the mileage Carl puts on the food truck’s odometer, the story goes nowhere.
Of course, it’s hard not to see the parallels between Carl’s journey from soul-less success to back-to-the-cutting-board bliss and Favreau’s choice to step off the big-budget superhero treadmill (he directed Cowboys and Aliens and the first two Iron Man flicks) and return to his indie roots.
But the essential difference between Favreau’s low-budget debut Swingers and this back-to-basics passion project is, ironically, hunger. When he was an unknown, Swingers had the nervous energy and inspiration of an undiscovered filmmaker determined to make his mark. Chef, on the other hand, feels like a low-risk side project, where Favreau can call in favors from A-list friends. Which explains why Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Sedaris and the hilariously manic Robert Downey Jr. (whose five-minute scene steals the show) fill out the supporting cast.
Perhaps the most interesting and revealing moment here is Favreau’s early confrontation with Platt’s food critic. It’s a surprisingly long and passionately yell-y diatribe about how his nasty reviews are both ignorant and hurtful. The point is quietly reiterated near the end of the film, even as both the cook and the critic bury the cleaver. One can’t help but wonder if Favreau is reacting to negative critiques of his recent work. If so, it’s an awkward and petty bit of retribution in an otherwise likeably upbeat movie.
It also stands in sharp contrast to Ratatouille’s (possibly too) generous point that sometimes critics really do serve a purpose, not only exposing people to innovative new work but even sacrificing their own reputations to further the notoriety of an undiscovered talent. Given my profession, I could be rationalizing my preference for Brad Bird’s wonderful defense of good taste. Or maybe it’s just that Remy the rat had a better story.