Written and directed by Jon Favreau
Now playing at the Senator Theatre
This summer's zeitgeist-y feel-good movie serves up an array of high-definition shots of sizzling gourmet food, translucent cellphone-screen projections, beloved Hollywood veterans, and foodie-centric cities. Add to the mix a precocious child actor and you have Chef, Jon Favreau's carefully crafted seventh feature film.
The Iron Man director stars as Carl Casper, an overweight celebrity chef in L.A. whose once-noteworthy talent has been frittered away in a restaurant run by a domineering old-head owner (Dustin Hoffman). He looks every bit the Top Chef type we've come to know over the years: knuckle tattoos, a sleeve on one forearm, a chef's knife tattooed on the other. He drunk-cooks. He wears a sweatband when he works the line. He shakes cornstarch on his nuts to dry them out when they're sweaty.
Carl splits his attention (unevenly) between inventing dishes that never make it to his customers and tending to his young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony). For all the culinary creativity he has, he lacks imagination when it comes to how to spend time with his preternaturally mature son, from whose charming mother, Inez (Modern Family's Sofia Vergara), Carl is divorced. Percy suggests accompanying him to the farmers market or watching him cook-the everyday father-son stuff Percy's now deprived of-but Carl thinks he needs to entertain, so he takes Percy to the amusement park or pawns the kid off on the restaurant's serene sommelier, Molly (Scarlett Johansson).
Favreau, who also wrote the script, pairs Carl's deadbeat-dad tendencies with his stifled career to provide the film's central conflict. Early on in the film, a preeminent food blogger (Oliver Platt) skewers Carl and his cooking; the Philippic goes viral on Twitter and ultimately leads to Carl's meltdown.
Not to fear: Redemption is kept at a simmer pretty much the entire movie, and Chef makes few, if any, bones about that. Favreau's not contending for an Oscar, and none of the performances are either. For as much plot as Chef offers-two hours' worth, every bit as dense as the Cuban sandwiches Carl eventually prepares-it's about as easy to digest as sorbet. This won't be a bad thing for the vast majority of filmgoers. The film was designed to succeed, and it will delight foodies in particular.
And, to his credit, Favreau does right by making the movie's female leads the voices of reason. Molly tells Carl outright to leave L.A. and rediscover his inspiration, and Inez pretty much solves every other problem for him. Vergara steals the entire show, in fact, despite the parade of A-listers (Robert Downey Jr., John Leguizamo, Hoffman, Platt). But you might leave Chef hungry-for both a sandwich and some complexity.