Jon Favreau just might be the coolest guy in Hollywood. The self-made writer/actor/director/producer parlayed an improv-comedy career and early friendship with Vince Vaughn into Swingers (1996), the seminal indie pic that launched both of their careers. While Vaughn has gone on to mega-stardom in front of the camera, Favreau moved behind it and, by directing the first two Iron Man blockbusters, turned arguably the coolest of all comic-book superheroes into the gold standard of comic-book film adaptations.
But there have been stumbles along the way—both 2009's Couples Retreat (writer, star) and 2011's Cowboys & Aliens (director, producer) were hammered by critics (though according to the Box Office Mojo website, each film has grossed upwards of $170 million worldwide, so critical turds appear to be no match against Favreau's Midas-like powers).
In Chef, Favreau gets back to his quadruple-crown roots, serving as producer, writer, director and leading man. It's a sweet, beautifully constructed and highly enjoyable movie. But there's a hole in the middle of this film's heart, and even though I find it generally distasteful to put a creative on the couch, it's hard not to in this case. Chef appears to be a cinematic middle finger pointed at the business of arts criticism in general and at insensitive critics in particular. That's just a personal theory, of course, but if it's correct I would venture to suggest that Chef would have benefited greatly from a bit less attention to sending a message and a bit more to shoring up the handful of major narrative flaws that ultimately prevent it from being the tour de force it could have, and maybe should have, been.
Favreau plays Carl Casper, a famous Los Angeles chef who parlayed early critical success into a seemingly lucrative career running the kitchen at one of the city's most popular restaurants (sound familiar?). Casper works up a dynamic new menu to present for a prominent food critic, but the restaurant's owner demands that he "play the hits" of the standard menu. The resulting aggressively unfavorable review sends Casper into a tailspin that wrecks his career and his self-confidence, before he regains them both by going back to his humble roots and learning some valuable life lessons along the way (can't be a coincidence, right?).
Where this movie shines, it really shines. Favreau is a master at scene construction, and Chef is jam-packed with brilliant ones. The food preparation scenes were so lovingly shot that they had my stomach literally growling even though I had eaten shortly before going to the theater. The sense of timing and comic dialogue that so define the first two Iron Man films is here in spades, and had me laughing out loud at the nearly vacant matinee showing (side note: personal experience has led me to believe that empty theaters reduce a film's humor profile by at least 25 percent). And the musicman, the music. Favreau uses everything from Marvin Gaye to Cuban salsa (and even a salsa cover of Marvin Gaye) to set the tone in some scenes and carry the weight in others.
But a series of baffling plot constructs keep tripping Chef's flow and eventually overwhelm its architectural artistry. Why would the restaurant's owner force his chef, whom he hired for his creativity, to go against his instincts and serve a decade-old menu (not once, but twice) to a critic seeking culinary innovation? Why would a sous chef quit a fast-track job at that prominent restaurant to join his former boss on a food truck? After finally connecting with his somewhat estranged son on an exhilarating journey through the American South, why does it take a highlight video to convince Casper that he should remain connected to said son? Why do the high-powered cameos (Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., Oliver Platt) in Chef feel so gratuitous?
If one chose to extend Favreau's couch session, further speculation about certain elements of Chef come into play. Does the fact that the critic snarkily references Casper's weight gain reflect Favreau's insecurity about his own? Is Favreau's casting of uber-bombshells Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara as Casper's love interests a thinly-veiled message that hot chicks love fat guys, as long as they're creative and cool enough, more than critics?
Okay, that last stuff might be a bit overreaching. But frankly, Favreau's mishandling of the core narrative elements of the film invite such speculation. Ironically, that makes Chef feel more like the standard menu Casper was forced to serve the critic instead of the creative triumph he intended. Doggie bag, please.
Chef screens at the Carmike 12 Thursday, June 12.