Jon Favreau makes Iron Man movies and crummy blockbuster comedies. What's he doing stepping in front of the camera, and behind it, for Chef, a mouth-watering culinary wish fulfillment fantasy?
Take this script, which he wrote, directed and stars in, as a metaphor for his film career. Chef is Favreau's most personal film since Swingers, an overlong 1996 comedy full of his food, his taste in music, his favorite places and a boatload of his favorite actors.
The actor Favreau brings his A-game patter to this romp about an embattled Los Angeles chef, once celebrated, now in a rut, who has to take a road trip in a food truck to find his soul, and his food, again.
Chef Carl Casper's big night at the swank Galouise eatery is ruined by the passive-aggressive owner (Dustin Hoffman) of the restaurant. "Be an artist on your own time," he says. Stick to "your greatest hits" menu.
And that's how Carl gets the bad review from a cranky online food critic (Oliver Platt). Carl's kid (Emjay Anthony) introduces him to Twitter. Big mistake. Carl insults the guy.
That leads to a flame war, which, in turn, leads to Carl's shout-down/ meltdown in the middle of the restaurant. He's out of a job and he's infamous, thanks to the viral video of his hissy fit.
It's time to take stock, not make stock. It's time to find what made him passionate about food, to remind himself he can "touch people's lives" with his cooking. It's time to go to Miami and maybe crank up a food truck.
Chef has adorable, PG-13-worthy father-son bonding, with Favreau really clicking with the kid. It has a wonderful supporting cast, with fellow cooks played by John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale, the restaurant manager/hostess played by Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara as Carl's party-planner ex-wife and Robert Downey Jr., leaning into the sort of eccentric word play that only Favreau brings out in him as another ex-husband of Vergara's character.
All of it comes off thanks to wonderful early scenes that establish Favreau's comfort in the kitchen, his steady hand with a knife. He seems at home in this world and relishes explaining what makes it special.
The food is mouthwatering — calamari to die for, squab, even a work-of-art grilled cheese sandwich — with every one of his senses committed to getting it perfect.
Carl shudders at the idea that he's now suitable for a role in a Gordon Ramsey reality show (Hell's Kitchen is pitched; they must have meant Kitchen Nightmares).
And knowing what it means when a chef gives a young cook his first knife is touching.
The "wish fulfillment fantasy" here is the whole overlong rosy-road-to-redemption part of the movie, which tries to sell us on Carl's utter ignorance of social media and his 10-year-old hooking him up and making him a star. That stuff — the idea that any true chef would not realize how hot the food truck movement is — and several abrupt, illogical leaps in the plot are the only sour ingredients in this delightful, savory comedy.
It's nice to see Favreau still can bring it once he's put down the comic books and the soul-sucking blockbusters they demand. Welcome back. Now, let's eat.