I'm late to the table – culinary joke! – to this sleeper hit, but after Chef received enough recommendations from trustworthy friends, I caved in and caught a matinee.
If writer/directer/star Jon Favreau had not already helmed huge Hollywood films like Iron Man and Elf, one might expect Chef to be a reasonable directorial debut for the guy who wrote and starred in the 1996 indie hit Swingers.
In fact, there may in fact be something a little meta about Chef: its plot concerns one Carl Casper (Favreau, perfectly casting his paunchy self as the archetypal celebrity chef, tattooed arms and all) who, cooking up safe, crowd-pleasing meals for a conservative restaurateur (Dustin Hoffman), gets excoriated by a popular food blogger. Carl rages at both his critic and his boss, simultaneously defending the hard work that goes into his dime-a-dozen chocolate lava cake while steaming over his lack of freedom to cook the challenging dishes he really wants to. It's easy to imagine Favreau seeing his own work the same way.
In any event, the rest of the movie concerns Carl's adventures in being his own boss, acquiring a food truck and bonding with his 10-year-old son. Again, one can see Carl's food truck, serving up tasty but unfussy comfort food, as a metaphor for Favreau the director turning his back (briefly) on Hollywood and returning to his indie roots, delivering low-budget but nevertheless very audience-friendly fare.
It's hard not to like Chef. In fact, it's so easygoing that, while watching it, I kept dreading that Favreau would throw in a mini-tragedy – the food truck gets stolen, his boy gets burned in the kitchen – to ruin the good vibes. Happily, he doesn't, and Chef glides along to a smooth finish.
The script does demand some suspension of disbelief: that a food blogger/restaurant critic could be so hugely influential; that said blogger would be stationed in Los Angeles instead of New York or other culinary meccas like San Francisco or Chicago; and that a ten-year-old boy would want to spend every waking minute with his father. (The latter seems more parental fantasy than anything rooted in reality.) And sure, Carl is a charming, talented, confident guy, but for his lumpy middle-aged self to be found attractive by both Sofia Vergara (as the stereotypical ex-wife who still loves him) and Scarlett Johansson (as the restaurant's hostess with the mostest), well, we've seen it all before.
The similarly-themed Ratatouille had meaningful insights on creativity, criticism, and expectations. Chef, in comparison, is content to simply celebrate the joy of cooking. (It also spends a lot of screen time expounding on the wonders of Twitter; I half-believe the social network financed the film.) It's fun. It's sweet. It will make you want to eat. But it has nothing much to say. Favreau may have poured his heart and soul into making the movie, but in the end, it's just another chocolate lava cake.