A version of this review appeared at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival. "Chef" opens in several cities on Friday.
Jon Favreau looked oddly humble at the world premiere of "Chef," the actor-writer-director's first smaller, character-driven effort since the earlier days of his career, when he wrote "Swingers" with his pal Vince Vaughn and later directed "Made." Buzz hadn't been on his side ahead of the screening, which opened the SXSW Film Festival in March, with some early viewers pegging Favreau's return to the arena of character-driven comedies after shifting into blockbuster mode with two "Iron Man" movies followed by "Cowboys and Aliens" as a total dud.
It's not quite that, but the story of a top-rated California chef (Favreau) driven mad by a bad review and forced to start his career from scratch is an intermittently amusing change of gears made for no other reason other than so the filmmaker can take a breather. The SXSW crowd at the Paramount theater, which tends to laugh at every joke as if were a masterful punchline, gave Favreau all the validation he needed—but if "Chef" represents a triumph for him, it's hardly indicative of anything beyond his own personal needs.
"I have no lofty aims with this movie," he said in his introduction, but then went one step further by positioning his passion project — which secured a theatrical release with sizable distributor Open Road Films long ago, co-stars Dustin Hoffman and John Leguizamo, and includes cheeky cameos from Favreau staples such as Robert Downey Jr. — in the broader landscape for independent cinema. "You can do smaller movies again," he said, singing the praises of the low budget arena. "You can make movies that aren't just about fantasy and escape."
However, "Chef" unquestionably plays just like that — at least in relation to Favreau, who appears in nearly every scene and seems to be aiming for the arena of his early career even as it remains just out of his reach. The movie, which maintains a lighthearted tone in its earliest scenes, benefits from Favreau's energetic screen presence.
As the Venice Beach-based Carl Casper, a single dad who appreciates the autonomy of his kitchen gig allowed by his moody boss (Hoffman), he's an instantly relatable workaholic enamored of his routine. But his comfort level frays when a cantankerous local critic (a wonderfully subdued Oliver Platt) tears apart the menu, enraging Carl, who discovers that the bad press has turned all of Twitter against him. When his superior won't let him alter the restaurant options so he can give the critic a second chance, Carl walks out on the job, but not before unleashing a "Network"-style meltdown at the restaurant captured on the cameras of every customer. Naturally, the video goes viral, yielding a cautionary tale about the power of social media as only someone in the public eye could tell it.
At least, it would address those topics if it developed them further. But Favreau has no sweeping thematic aims here: While Carl resists the pressure to play up his newfound celebrity by joining the cast of "Hell's Kitchen," he's suddenly thrust into a desperate place that makes it hard to imagine he can recover. Favreau follows the proceedings endured by his everyman with a genial, meandering pace, so that even when the movie starts to drag during later scenes involving Carl and his young son bonding over their new food truck production, it never feels tedious.
But as the story hums along, it's hard to shake the perception that Favreau simply called up a bunch of famous friends to hang some food porn around a flimsy plot. As self-indulgent vanity projects go, this one's pretty innocuous, if only because it's always easy on the eyes.
Even so, there's a definite analytical dimension to Carl's journey. Shifting from the upscale restaurant world to a less glamorous arena, the character's progress evidently reflects Favreau's own attempt to return to his roots. Tellingly, even when Carl starts selling Cuban sandwiches on the beach, he's recognized by a passing cop for his previous achievements. It's like Favreau is winking in the mirror while the rest of us just watch from the sidelines.
No matter the lightweight qualities of the project, "Chef" still has Hollywood DNA in its bones, which negates its director's positioning of the movie within the developments of the indie sphere. Consider "Chef" alongside the likes of the 2010 thriller "Bitter Feast," Joe Maggio's atmospheric two-hander about a chef who actually kidnaps and tortures one of his critics. "Bitter Feast" engages with the same world of obsessive foodies and the industry surrounding them with a far shrewder degree of satiric engagement.
Viewed together, it's clear that Favreau's assertions about the liberating climate for producing non-studio product misses the point. As always, the value of the current environment for non-studio filmmaking isn't related to making decent movies for cheap, but rather the ingenuity that such liberties allow. The only fresh ingredients in "Chef" are its mouth-watering delicacies.