But as its title character ditches his prestigious restaurant kitchen, sets up shop in a food truck, and rediscovers his culinary calling, accompanied by shots of glorious grub, the movie proves more visually enticing than emotionally satisfying.
Favreau provided winning human connection in his screenplay for 1996’s “Swingers,” which he followed with a rough but witty directorial debut, “Made.” Big studios tapped him for “Elf,” two “Iron Man” films, and the unremarkable “Cowboys and Aliens.” With “Chef,” the writer-director-star returns to small-scale terrain.
Favreau plays Carl Casper, a Los Angeles chef who has capable underlings (Bobby Cannavale, John Leguizamo), a sometimes girlfriend in floor manager Molly (Scarlett Johansson), a caring ex-wife named Inez (Sofía Vergara), and a deserving 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony).
Adamant about maintaining creative control, Carl seethes when his play-it-safe boss (Dustin Hoffman) instructs him to cook only his “greatest hits” when a powerful restaurant critic (Oliver Platt) visits. The critic scathingly pans the meal. In response, Carl instigates verbal, viral war.
Left jobless, Carl travels with Inez and Percy to Miami, where, courtesy of Inez’s first husband (a hilarious Robert Downey Jr.), Carl acquires a food truck. Assisted by Percy and Leguizamo’s grill-chef character, Carl spruces up the vehicle and starts serving Cuban street food. The back-to-basics venture triumphs, father and son bond, and Carl falls in love with cooking again on the cross-country journey.
A pleasant presence on both sides of the camera, Favreau supplies nothing easy to dislike.
As a food flick, the movie has everything from a dice-and-slice montage to overhead shots of artfully arranged California cuisine to cheesy food-truck chow that aces the close-up.
As a road comedy, it makes up for sloppiness with irresistible local-flavor bites, including a memorable stop in New Orleans, where Carl introduces Percy to beignets.
The characters have camaraderie, and actor Favreau is believable and embraceable as a culinary artist.
Still, the overall grill is low on sizzle, and the storytelling could use more risk, substance, and spice.
For one thing, it’s not convincing that Carl is seriously struggling.
As often happens in stories where disillusioned adults become reinvigorated when interacting with a child, the kid scenes receive inordinate screen time, at the expense of edgier, richer material. Platt’s “hater” and Cannavale’s sous chef, potentially interesting characters played by good actors, particularly suffer in this regard.
The Hollywood ending, like too much of this promising film, suggests the recipe book.
Starring Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Emjay Anthony
Written and directed by Jon Favreau
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes