There’s no denying that Jon Favreau has been on a download slope with the critics since writing and co-starring in the 1996 indie Swingers. That parachuting line graph lingers throughout Chef, a feel-good drama that, while free of conflict, seems to entirely be an undercooked riff on the filmmaking business.
Favreau directs, writes and stars in a haphazard storyline consisting of Carl (Favreau), a one-time critically lauded chef whose reputation sinks further with each meal. One restaurant blogger (Oliver Platt) is particularly outspoken, and even includes a jab about weight gain in a blogpost. “You sit and you eat and you vomit up all these words,” screams Carl. “It fucking hurts when you write this shit.” Are those words pointed at a different type of blogger perhaps?
Carl eventually hits the road with a food truck to rediscover his passion for culinary activities – not unlike Jerry Seinfeld’s return to stand-up after the Seinfeld finale. Accompanied by his son Percy (EmJay Anthony) and fellow cook Martin (John Leguizamo), the travels take up most of Chef as they amble about to serve sandwiches. That’s really it. One subplot, involving Sofía Vergara as Carl’s ex-wife, is barely covered upon – and even then, with the disdain usually reserved for washing up dishes. What’s more prevalent is the screenplay’s bizarre obsession with social media. Be ready for plot twists to revolve around Carl accidentally posting a Twitter DM on his timeline, or the shock when Percy geotags a Tweet. Sample line of dialogue: “What’s a Vine?”
If you’re not a fan of cooking montages set to soul music, then stay away. Carl’s main passion in life is preparing food in a kitchen, which he repeatedly states throughout. However, there’s little evidence in Chef – even with its aimless plot that always has food within the frame – that this is the case. In fact, the strongest emotions come when Carl eats the meals he’s prepared for himself. This self-congratulation befits a story that seems to be someone masking his own insecurities. Scarlett Johansson features in a minor role that exists purely to comfort him: “I want you to be happy. I know you’re not happy.” (Other female characters are there for quips about “divorce money”, or to be the target of an unpleasant Robert Downey, Jr. cameo.)
The central core of Favreau, Leguizamo and EmJay at least possess some charm, especially when Chef is determined to park its vehicle and go for an idle wander. Large portions consist of the trio riding in the truck, pondering over the marketing value of social media. In order to reach this position, Carl and Martin had to quit their jobs and pause their lives for a spontaneous holiday – Chef is that flavour of feel-good where nothing can go wrong. You’d think that letting a few “bros” hang out might amount to at least on conversation of note. At best, they each pour corn starch down their underwear. The reason? To set up a gag about hush puppies.