If summer blockbusters are the cinematic equivalent of junk food, then Jon Favreau's latest film, "Chef," is a healthy entrée cooked up in the midst of this upcoming season's buffet of explosions and clanging noises. It's far from being a perfect dish: Some portions of it are particularly underdone, but it's still a refreshingly tasty meal that's rich with juicy flavor.
In addition to writing and directing the film, Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a passionate head chef of a Los Angeles restaurant who is torn apart by local food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), in an online review. Not only is Casper brutally mocked by Michel, but he's also criticized for being plain and ordinary, which hits him hard on a personal level. Initially, he wanted to throw a few specialty items onto the menu when he was informed of Michel's visit, but the restaurant's frigid owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), heavily insisted on playing it safe.
After refusing to conform to Riva's restrictive demands, Casper quits his job and starts up a food truck with his friend Martin (played charismatically by John Leguizamo) that he picks up in Miami in order to prove that his culinary talents can be as delicious as they are financially dependable. Even more importantly, Casper also attempts to reconnect with his ten-year-old son, Percy (charmingly portrayed by Emjay Anthony), after distancing himself from the boy following the divorce from his ex-wife, Inez (the lovely Sofía Vergara). Together, these three likable underdogs have an uplifting road trip, traveling from the east coast back to the west coast and selling Casper's savory foods in several southern cities along the way.
As a feel-good comedy, "Chef" is pretty delightful, and even when it hits a few speed bumps throughout Casper's journey, it's not for a lack of effort or earnestness. Everyone involved is clearly having a lot of fun, and it's easy to see why. Favreau's script is funny without being smug, and uplifting without being too cloyingly sentimental. Is it formulaic? Absolutely, but always in a pleasant, joyful kind of way that makes you happy to go along for the ride, even if you've been down this route several times before and know exactly where the destination is.
The film works best when it focuses on Casper bonding with Percy, because beneath all of its salivating imagery in regards to its food-related drama, the film is mainly about the bond between a father and his son. Sure, the central plot revolves around whether or not Casper will be able to turn over a profit with his signature meals, and there are times where the "importance of family" message borders on being a bit too syrupy, but Favreau and Anthony have such naturalistic chemistry together that they make even the most clichéd scenes feel relatively fresh.
Its lesser scenes are ones in which big-name celebrities happen to pop up in supporting or borderline cameo roles for what I can only assume is to help get larger audiences into the theater based on seeing their names on posters and television spots. It's a pleasure to see Scarlett Johansson having a good time in this film, and she's been on a roll in regards to her latest starring vehicles ("Under the Skin" and "Her" feature her best performances to date), but she mainly exists in this film has a personified form of exposition. In addition to that, it's almost always great to see Robert Downey Jr. in any film, but he only appears in one minor scene that's not nearly as chuckle-inducing as it should be (it ultimately feels contrived and inconsequential).
That being said, the film's strengths far outweigh its cons, including some crisp outlooks on contemporary culture such as how the world of social media affects business in general. Casper's meltdown with Michel goes viral and becomes detrimental to his career, but later on Percy uses Twitter to help increase the business of his father's food stand. Favreau also generates some cute visuals in regards to when his characters use these digital applications (Twitter screens appear in the background of the characters on their phones and morph into a blue bird that literally "tweets" as it flies out of the frame). It's a bit heavy-handed, and may end up feeling like a redundant bit of product placement by the end of the film, but it's a charming way to progress the story forward in this contemporary age, and from the way Favreau uses them as ways to develop the plot, it feels as if he's had personal experiences on both ends of the spectrum in regards to the way his critics and audiences have responded to his previous directorial efforts.
What's perhaps most important of all about why "Chef" works is that it feels like a sincere, personal project. After Favreau's much-reported struggles when working on "Iron Man 2" and the disastrous box-office bomb that was "Cowboys & Aliens," he's gone back to his small, independent roots of "Swingers" and "Made," in which the stakes feel smaller both in terms of its budget and its storytelling, but that's what makes it such an endearing piece of comfort food. Not only do the chronological parallels of Favreau's filmography work in favor of the storytelling's authenticity, it also feels appropriate in this stage of his career. By reminding us that he's still a man with a heart that savors the little things in life, Favreau has served up a slight, if undeniably scrumptious cinematic platter.