With his "passion project" comedy "Chef," Jon Favreau reminds us why we liked him in the first place.
That was back in 1996, when Favreau was an unknown who wrote himself a lead role in an indie romance, "Swingers," as an insecure guy navigating the L.A. bar scene and keeping then-unknown Vince Vaughn from stealing every scene.
Jon Favreau gets his filmmaking groove back in this warm-hearted comedy about a cook getting back in touch with his craft.
Where » Area theaters.
When » Opens Friday, May 23.
Rating » R for language, including some suggestive references.
Running time » 115 minutes.
Since then, Favreau has grown into a hotshot filmmaker, directing "Elf," the first two "Iron Man" movies (in which he also played Tony Stark’s bodyguard, Happy Hogan) and the flop "Cowboys & Aliens."
"Chef" returns Favreau to his low-budget roots, writing and directing an engaging and heartfelt comedy. Of course, having some Hollywood clout also means he gets to call in some favors from, for example, "Iron Man" stars Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson.
Favreau plays Carl Casper, a Los Angeles chef whose life is in a rut. He’s divorced from Inez (Sofia Vergara) and having trouble connecting with their 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony). His love life consists of lazy hookups with Molly (Johansson), the hostess at the restaurant where Carl is chef de cuisine. Carl’s unhappy at work because he can’t cook his food but must stick with the stodgy menu the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) wants, even when a prominent critic/blogger (Oliver Platt) is coming to visit.
When the critic writes a scathing review, Carl goes ballistic — and, being ignorant of the Internet, takes the battle to Twitter. This leads to him quitting the restaurant, but not before confronting the critic in a public meltdown that becomes a YouTube sensation.
Carl goes back to Miami, where his career started — spurred by Inez, who arranges with her first husband (Downey in an offbeat cameo) to get Carl a food truck. Carl and Percy, with an assist from Carl’s loyal sous chef Marty (John Leguizamo), refurbish the truck and hit the road, selling Cuban sandwiches in Miami, New Orleans and Austin on the way back to Los Angeles.
This is where the movie has the most fun. Favreau constructs witty montages that capture the vibrancy of the food scenes in the cities — the Cuban influences in Miami, beignets in New Orleans, barbecue in Texas (and a cameo from Austin bluesman Gary Clark Jr.). These scenes also allow the father-son relationship the space to grow, as Carl teaches Percy how to be a line cook.
Favreau’s direction highlights the preparation of food, but it’s not mere objectification or "food porn." The real treat is watching him celebrate cooks who make good food, experimenting with flavors and paying attention to every detail. (The end credits include a fascinating outtake, as L.A. chef Roy Choi, the movie’s technical adviser, teaches Favreau — and us — how to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich.)
Favreau’s script requires the audience to accept some implausibilities, like how easily Carl’s truck becomes road-ready, or that his food and personality are so wonderful that he was able to woo Vergara and Johansson. (Actually, Johansson’s rapturous reaction after eating Carl’s pasta makes this one nearly credible.)
Cut through those tall tales, and "Chef" seduces by showing the love an artist has reconnecting with the joy of creating — a love Favreau shows in every frame of this charming film.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.