There is something to be said for feel-good movies about food. Their attack on the senses is twofold: first, they whet the gastronomical appetite with the golden sizzling of garlic in a pan, the satisfying sound of a fresh radish being sliced, the seductive drizzle of sweet or savory sauces over a meal that looks like art on the clean canvas of white porcelain. Then, they satisfy hunger pangs of the heart. For this movie, it’s ball jokes, lessons about how to be a dad to a kid with an iPhone, and exceedingly unlikely happy endings.
Jon Favreau writes, directs, and stars in Chef
, the story of Carl Casper, a brilliant cook but a schlubby guy, with a supportive and beautiful ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), a smart and adorable ten-year-old son (Emjay Anthony), and a job at a fancy restaurant where he works with his best bros (John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale).
But something’s missing -- Casper has a taste for gastronomical adventure that he can’t follow under the thumb of the conservative and autocratic restaurant owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman). One thing leads to another and Casper ends up losing his job and going berserk on a restaurant critic, (albeit in a Louie C.K., likable kind of way). The embarrassment is exacerbated by the power of social media (a force throughout the film that, at least at the beginning, thoroughly baffles the middle aged Casper) when footage of his rampage goes viral.
But it turns out that when you’re down on your luck, all you need is a beat-up food truck and a knowledge of cured meats. (Oh, also a rich ex-wife with a rich ex-husband, true friends and an obedient, hardworking ten-year-old, but mostly just a food-truck because, you know, America.) And even though you kinda know what’s coming, it’s exciting to watch Casper slow cook, marinate, and deep fry his way back to a passionate culinary life, on a hot summer drive from Miami to Los Angeles by way of some classic American cities.
The dynamic between Casper and his son is heartfelt, even if it does get a little preachy at times. The cheese factor (and I’m not talking grilled, although there are some mouth-watering shots of Casper carefully flipping golden bread on a griddle until he’s crafted the most perfect grilled cheesed for his son) is mitigated by the humor of son having as much, or more, to teach a father about the modern world. Watching the ten-year-old try to teach his dad how to tweet (with very mixed success) is one of the best scenes in the film.
But Casper’s relationships with women are less believable. There are two pseudo romantic subplots involving his ex-wife and the hostess of the restaurant (Scarlett Johannson), both of whom are intelligent, gorgeous, and successful. Both women give solid performances, Vergara in particular works her vamp eyes and huge smile to comedic effect, but after a while, both women start to feel like “good girl” tropes masquerading as real characters.
It all feels just a little too easy for the lovable but difficult Casper. Especially the ending, an over-sweetened cliche after a film that dealt with the difficulties of the food business and family with such humor and heart. But Favreau gives us enough flavor variation along the way that maybe it's okay. Chef is, after all, an ode to simple food. It’s like a gourmet grilled cheese: familiar, feel good, a little played, but with a few twists and turns that keep the flavor fresh. A little arugula, or blueberries or occasionally jalapeños, are sprinkled in to give a predictable plot some spice.
Photos via: Open Road Films