“Chef” explores potentially engaging and emotional themes of reconnecting with family and the quest for contentment and fulfillment in one’s vocation. Yet it does so in such a lighthearted, jovial manner that any gravity to the situations presented are all but lost. There’s entertainment in the scattered jokes and the overwhelmingly good-natured mood that permeates the entire film, but when every conflict is quashed within minutes and the predicaments barely register concern, the power to affect audiences dwindles. The drawn out pacing also lends to the feeling of insouciance towards weightier drama as a prolonged setup gives way to an even lengthier denouement that features almost exclusively playful nonchalance. “Chef” is unique and uplifting in its abundant display of merriment, but will likely leave viewers hungry for something with more substance.
Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) loves to cook. Despite battling stifled creativity from his oppressive manager (Dustin Hoffman), Casper runs the kitchen of the Gauloises restaurant with relish, making even his relationships with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and young son Percy (Emjay Anthony) secondary to his culinary exploits. But when a very public clash with uppity food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) finds its way onto the internet, and Caspar finds himself out of a job, he travels to Miami at the behest of Inez to attempt to reconnect with his son. Initially reluctant to the drastic change, the headstrong cook finally agrees to run a mobile food truck, and with the help of his former sous-chef Martin (John Leguizamo), Carl and Percy embark on a road trip that will take them from Florida to Louisiana to Texas – and back into each other’s lives.
It’s undeniably unusual to see a film with essentially zero conflict and a setup that lasts nearly one hour – resulting in an opening and a closing but no real significance in the middle. It’s also understandably odd to see a theatrical feature about a food truck. Although “Chef” is largely focused on a cordon bleu who learns to love his job again, while also bonding with his son and patching his kinship with his ex-wife, a prominent portion of screentime is devoted to the comestibles themselves. Close-ups of dishes sizzling, fillets being sliced to reveal rare juiciness, fish and shrimp receiving colorful garnishes and sauces, and desserts lightly dusted with powdered caramel and sugars are practically characters of their own (save for the shocking discerping of a pig). It’s tantalizing and inspiring but certainly doesn’t coax the story forward.
Emjay Anthony delivers a fine performance for a child actor, though his use as a motivation for Casper to pursue new enterprises and relate with his son are noticeably flimsy. Percy only pouts offscreen and the few times he does so are brief and easily amended. Similarly, Casper never fights with Inez or Molly (a throwaway role for Scarlett Johansson) or even rival Marvin (a nothing part for Robert Downey Jr. – yet another example of a big star in a tiny role). As for the rest of the cast, Favreau is genuine and right at home as a food connoisseur, while Vergara proves once again that she’s only capable of playing one type of character. Downey Jr. also restates his comfort with quirky, sarcastic, overconfident personas.
There’s commentary on social media in the form of both mockery and flattery, at once teasing the technology and touting its effectiveness. Older, disinterested Carl can’t quite comprehend the details of Twitter, while his young boy doesn’t understand the emotional complexities of divorce. The food critic’s name is too obviously a reference to Gordon Ramsey, whose show “Kitchen Nightmares” famously introduced the world to an unavoidably comparable Twitter meltdown and self-imposed character assassination in the Amy’s Baking Company episode. And the conclusion feels like a live-action take on “Ratatouille.” The extreme lack of cinematic friction results in the plot languishing in easygoing meandering; creating a pleasant, breezy, feel-good flick that has no poignancy or pathos.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)