‘Chef’ Director: Jon Favreau Stars: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
Jon Favreau makes handmade films. “Zathura,” his follow-up to the soulless CGI machine “Jumanji,” has practical special effects, including lizard men that are just dudes in rubber suits. He fought to put recovering bad boy Robert Downey Jr., not some rent-a-hunk, at the head of “Iron Man.” You can even spot some integrity, however misapplied, to the leaden “Cowboys & Aliens,” which was made after who knows how many spins of John Ford westerns. (If anything, he didn’t watch them enough.) In many ways, his latest, “Chef,” is a thin film, but the passion behind it is real and contagious. It begs for food metaphors, so let’s get this out of the way: It’s like an old standard — say, a Cuban sandwich, the film’s main dish — cooked with just enough of a twist that it feels fresh and classic at once.
The film is about 70 percent food porn, but there is a plot: Favreau, giving himself his first lead role in ages, is Carl Casper, a superstar of the California restaurant scene who’s been feeling stagnant. The owner of his restaurant (Dustin Hoffman) won’t let him deviate from the decade-old menu, and a bad review from a feared critic (Oliver Platt) becomes the last straw. A Twitter fight leads to a meltdown that goes viral. Unemployed and restless, he decides to get into the food truck business with a loyal sous-chef (John Leguizamo) and his young, neglected son, Percy (Emjay Anthony).
The paternal business could/should be grating, but Favreau goes light on it, finding a way to get it into the narrative organically and without ruining the cranky-excited tone. (That Favreau the actor stops well before waterworks ensures that the big moving bit, when it comes, is actually pretty moving.) In fact, most of this could/should be grating. It’s mostly about food, resembling a particularly well-shot Food or Travel Channel show (although it’s not quite as beautiful, aesthetically, as Anthony Bourdain’s shows have become). Favreau knows how to shoot food but he also knows how to talk food, and how to shoot the all-encompassing drive of cooking on a line. (It also, despite the kid, keeps to a very realistic R, because cooking makes you swear.)
The business with the critic is a bit more problematic. Platt’s critic is a snooty loner who grumbles on social media, where everyone’s become a critic. (Favreau’s depiction of tweeting with cartoon birds tweeting as they fly into space is the film’s major miscalculation, and which doesn’t get better the dozens upon dozens of times it happens.) That’s a tired stereotype — and yet the critic turns out to be right. He’s astute enough to sense Carl’s frustration in his cooking, and isn’t rude about it until he’s pushed first. That Carl can be wrong and hotheaded is a nice touch, and it betrays the film’s big, open heart, making it all the more (one more food metaphor) palatable.