If Jon Favreau’s film, Chef were a food it would be garlic. It’s a product adored by some, hated by others and is not rare. This light comedy with hints of drama does hit the mark, in some respects. But on other points it is a half-baked, lukewarm pie that will underwhelm fans of his other work.
Favreau is the writer, producer, director and star of this film. He is also the man well-known for having directed the movie, Swingers as well as big-budget flicks, Iron Man and Iron Man 2. For Chef, this is a homecoming and labour of love of sorts with Favreau returning to his indie roots, although this film was the opening night one at SXSW and boasts cameos from no less than Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr.
The story is centred on Carl Casper (Favreau), who is the head-chef at a prominent Los Angeles restaurant. He was once considered a rising star in the culinary world but lately he has been sitting on his laurels, serving up popular yet unimaginative food. When the restaurant is faced with a visit from the infamously acerbic food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), Casper thinks it’s time to experiment with a new menu but his controlling boss, Riva (Hoffman) stops this.
Michel gives Casper a harsh review and the former is even personal in his vitriol (suggesting the chef’s weight gain is because patrons have been sending food back to the kitchen and Casper has been eating the dishes). The review goes viral and Casper’s well-meaning and tech-savvy son (played by the adorable and wide-eyed, Emjay Anthony) introduces his Dad to Twitter. This culminates in a war of words between the chef and critic and leads to Casper quitting his job and unable to find a new one.
Luckily, Casper’s ex-wife (an over-the-top, Sofía Vergara) comes to the rescue. She suggests Casper should contact her ex-husband (Downey Jr.) who owns an old food truck. The vehicle is in desperate need of repair but it does help salvage Casper’s relationship to his estranged son and wife, as he embarks on a road trip with the boy and his former line chef (John Leguizamo).
The unlikely trio sell Cuban sandwiches and pick up many new fans along the way (including comedian, Russell Peters who acts as an overzealous cop). They proceed to tell the world about their new venture through social media and this adds a multimedia-like aspect to the production. The second act is where the film really picks up in terms of showing real emotion. It also boasts an excellent soundtrack with Latin pop and beats plus groovy, New Orleans blues (not to mention a great cameo from Gary Clark Jr.).
Chef’s biggest problem is that it’s an over-stuffed and rambling affair, especially in the setup during the first act where a number of jokes miss the mark. Some of the supporting characters are hollow- Michel is just a caricature while Scarlett Johansson’s Molly is rather redundant (she is there simply to assure the chef that he is wonderful and to pull sultry faces when some beautiful food is on display). That said, the images of the food are exquisite and look scrumptious (professional chef, Roy Choi oversaw the prepared dishes and it shows). It seems that this will send audiences away hungry (not just those looking to satiate their actual appetites but possibly for ones wanting a film that was a little less lightweight).
This film has some real heart as Casper rekindles his love of cooking, builds bridges with his family and brings us all along for a wacky adventure. But this sunny film ultimately is an overlong, slow-burner that tries to be too much (a road trip film, romantic comedy, relationship drama and even a chef’s story about exploring creativity). In short, it’s warm and easy-going like apple pie but for some it will prove to be as forgettable as a value meal from McDonalds.
Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Chef opens in Australian cinemas this Thursday, May 8th.