Jon Favreau likens the roots of his latest film “Chef” to his creation of “Swingers,” the movie he co-wrote that brought him and Vince Vaughan to fame.
After almost a decade of making movies with 9-figure budgets, Favreau returned to indie filmmaking with a script that he hammered out in a few weeks after being struck with inspiration. The end result is a slight (passion or vanity, depending on how you look at it) project that feels like it was tossed together in short order, and finds Favreau unevenly blending blue humor with treacly family friendly themes.
The movie tells the story of popular Los Angeles chef Carl Casper (Favreau) who has put his creativity and passion on cruise control, weakening his cooking and hampering the relationships with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and young son (Emjay Anthony).
He still goes to the farmers’ markets for his produce and enjoys the camaraderie of his staff, but he has taken to playing it safe, hamstrung by his restaurant’s nosey owner (Dustin Hoffman). After a scathing review from a well-regarded restaurant critic (Oliver Platt, relishing the role that mirrors his brother Adam’s real-life gig at New York Magazine) mocks and trashes Casper’s laziness, the chef decides to revamp his menu. But when his restaurant’s owner forces him to continue to play the same tired culinary hits, Casper throws in the towel.
After he hits bottom, Casper gets a boost from his ex-wife, who drags her depressed ex-husband and their son, Percy, out to their former home of Miami for some Cuban-flavored inspiration. While in Miami, Casper gets reinvigorated by the sights, sounds and smells of Miami’s Little Havana.
When he gets a cash infusion from an unexpected source (Rober Downey Jr. chewing scenery as an absurd eccentric fellow ex-husband of Vergara), Casper decides to open a food truck. (That's an idea his ex-wife has been pushing for some time. The other dimensionless bombshell in the movie, a hostess played by Scarlett Johansson, also basically serves as a cheerleader for the mopey chef.)
With the help of his sous chef (a spunky John Leguizamo) and his precocious son, who helps rebuild Casper’s brand via social media, the chef takes off on a cross-country journey. The travelogue reintroduces Casper to his love of cooking and his son. Stops in New Orleans and Austin (the crowd gobbled it up at the Paramount), feature some quality food porn and local color, and the story finally starts to hum with some pace and humor fueled by the camaraderie of the two older guys indoctrinating the young kid into the ways of the kitchen and the road.
The relationship between son and father threatens to fray as the Bro-ad trip comes to a quick conclusion. But Casper is wise enough to not start chipping away at his newly (and unbelievably quickly) rebuilt life, and finds the strength and desire to hold on to what he’s worked to restore.
“Chef” may be a return to the days of “Swingers” and Favreau’s “Made” in terms of its budget and some of its off-color language and clever bouts of dialogue, but the similarities end there. You can see parallels between the movie’s back-to-basics story and Favreau’s career – rarely do you find a director move from a comic-book franchise (“Iron Man”) to such a small personal tale. But the movie’s paint-by-numbers story and whiplash tonal shifts feel fueled less by passion than the desire to crank out a movie on the cheap and quick.