By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Movies don’t come more mouth-watering than “Chef,” written, directed and starring Jon Favreau.
Favreau hit it off with audiences with his very first film, “Swingers,” which essentially did two things.
1) It made Vince Vaughn a household name.
2) It made it ok — cool, even — to embrace the whole moldy Rat Pack thing. Only, of course, slightly re-edited, so that all the cool people are absolutely cool about race and women’s greatest wish is to be treated as a sex object.
Neither could be considered a gift to cinema (Have you seen Vaughn’s last five films? Last 10? But that’s another column).
“Chef” is a return to Favreau’s indie roots. Having made a considerable fortune directing “Elf” and the first two “Iron Man” movies, he apparently feels financially secure enough to try something different, in this case, a kind of quintessential post-millennium picture. His picture is admittedly by-the-book (hence, post-millennial, in that it appeals to audiences’ core need for immediate gratification).
However, “Chef” also speaks to an innate (and too often disposable) humanism in that it has been done with care, intelligence and an emphasis on relationships rather than special effects.
Probably the most special effect in the entire movie is a close-up of Favreau making a grilled chess sandwich for his young son (Emjay Anthony).
In “Chef,” Favreau casts himself as, well, a chef in a swank but complacent L.A. restaurant. When a famous food critic (Oliver Platt) comes to visit, Chef Favreau wants to dazzle him with all sort of creative dishes — delicacies that are far from the usual sautéed scallops and chocolate lava cake the customers usually order (Note; this movie does for chocolate lava cake what “Sideways” did for merlot).
However, the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman, perfect, in a gem-like extended cameo) mandates that Chef serve the tried-and-true. Stick to you greatest hits, Hoffman advises. “Would you want to go to a Rolling Stones concert and not hear ‘Satisfaction?’”
Satisfaction, however, is not on Platt’s agenda. Sure enough, The Digital Critic — as Platt’s blog is known —slices, dices and filets Favreau.
Chef challenges Critic to a return match. But Hoffman won’t have it and the upstart is, well, a new beginning, as they say in the “Star Wars” Universe (i.e., ours).
Chef’s guardian angel, ex-wife Sofia Vergara (much warmer here than in other big-screen performances, another sign of Favreau’s gift with actors)) suggests he join her and their son on a trip to Miami.
There, Favreau is reborn in the South Beach sun as a food truck entrepreneur. And, well, you take it from there.
Admittedly, “Chef” is guilty of healing-family-homilies and buddy-flick predictability. However, the movie never boils over (sorry) into full-blown sentimental clichés.
The supporting cast sparkles in just the right supporting way. Along with Hoffman and Vergara, we have John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale and Robert Downey Jr., each adding a little something, just as different spices wake up a basic dish.
Yes, “Chef” goes on too long, but some of that is also what makes it work. Favreau takes the time to establish characters and relationships. And he takes his time with the narrative. He’s also not afraid to throw in weird little bits. Like a brief glimpse of one of those ubiquitous Hello Kitty videos (in this case, a kitty in a camouflage jacket mowing down terrorists).
“Chef” feels authentic even at its most sentimental. It’s not a work of genius, but it’s just fine. And that exquisite grilled cheese sandwich Chef Favreau cooks up for his boy will haunt you for days.