By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Before venturing out to see Jon Favreau’s deliciously convivial “Chef,” make arrangements for an après-cinema meal to complement what is sure to whet your appetite. Oh, it needn’t be haute cuisine: just, as the moral gist of this film suggests, good, honest fare prepared with equal parts passion and care…perhaps a food truck if the hour permits.
Cooking up his triple threat (write, direct, and star), what Mr. Favreau forgoes in conventional movie recipe he sumptuously rectifies with a feel good lilt that dishes-up a hearty helping of warmth. No disingenuous reductions of this or that, drizzled with essence of sanctimonious glaze…not here.
In fact, it’s just that sort of gourmand pretense that sends Mr. Favreau’s Carl Casper on his gustatory journey. Divorced from, but still good friends with, Inez (Sofia Vergara), the beautiful mom of his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), the noted chef de cuisine is now wed to his status at a famous L.A. dining room. But trouble brews in paradise.
Resulting from an inauspicious visit to his revered salle à manger by foppish food reviewer Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) — an unflattering caricature that serves us critics right — Carl and his patron-restaurateur (Dustin Hoffman) have a bone to pick. In a funk both in the kitchen and in his life, the lines often blurring, the title character wants to reignite his career with a new and creative bill of fare. But “no, no,” warns the boss. Profits are high, and Carl should note on which side his baguette is buttered.
The chef quits over creative differences…the front-loaded revelation about artistic freedom thus delivering the plot complication in the exposition rather than just before the denouement. Reading the English side of the menu, it means Carl, at Inez’s suggestion, decides to take his gastronomical show on the road and go the food truck route. Hopefully it’ll give Carl and Percy a chance to rekindle their relationship.
Mixed in with the sweet and savorily seasoned array of things culinary, this is a touching ingredient that will, if you were so blessed, jog a steady stream of wistfulness. Oh, to be with Dad, even if only a ride to Sears to get paint, just you two. He might tell a story as he tussles your hair… maybe about when he was little like you…your favorite kind. Indeed, Mr. Favreau’s script tugs at, if not manipulates, the heartstrings with little compunction…and we’re glad to soak up the soppiness with our own memories.
A happy, upbeat jauntiness permeates most of the magical victual tour that spells coming of age for Percy and rejuvenation for Carl…aided and abetted by John Leguizamo as Martin, that very important element in such tales of bonding. Former number 3 man at the chichi watering hole, he’s like that best friend/crazy uncle who’s stowed aboard to champion Dad’s virtues whilst joyously spewing a narrative of life-affirming non sequiturs.
Adding a contemporary nuance to the genre, a savvy commentary on social media cracks wisely to form the subplot. The kid, representative of his generation’s adroit command of texting, twittering and whatever other telecommunicating modes might be invented before film’s end, becomes the chronicler and hawker for the scrumptious odyssey. Quicker than you can say Mark Zuckerberg, hungry E-followers from Miami to Los Angeles salivate in anticipation of devouring Carl’s instantly legendary Cuban sandwich.
Mr. Favreau as the foodie extraordinaire amiably personifies the democratization of Carl’s art while serving up big dollops of that indulgent fantasy: telling the boss where he can go and then basking in the glorious, gypsyesque independence of food truck-ism. Comfortable in his noticeably overweight casing, he exacts an emotional mélange of untarnished enthusiasm, ambition, uncertainty and pride.
And, if you go by that old axiom about the unseen qualities of just average-looking fellows who have won the attentions of very attractive women, he must be some guy. Sofia Vergara’s sagacious Inez conveys an upbeat perceptiveness that says volumes about the chef’s character and talent. Young Mr. Anthony as Percy, the boy who wishes for what most children of divorced parents yearn for, also does a nice job…his digital proficiency imparting an introspective, running gag about our Technological New World.
Adding to the bittersweet flavor of the epiphanies Percy and his dad share, a splash of realistic tartness is imparted by Dustin Hoffman’s inflexible impresario. But the perfect amuse-bouche is Robert Downey, Jr., who contributes a sublime nuttiness as the fast quipping Marvin, a possibly shady businessman and Inez’s previous spouse.
Granted, portions, while always generous, are a bit pie in the sky-ish. Still, despite a concoction of plot fixings that don’t quite follow the usual order of courses that stirs together a storyline, the end result is a pièce de résistance you’ll want to queue up for when “Chef” rolls into your movie house.
“Chef,” rated R, is an Open Roads Film (II) release directed by Jon Favreau and stars Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara and Emjay Anthony. Running time: 115 minutes