"Chef," a home-cooked, sugary-sweet concoction whipped up by Jon Favreau, works neatly as a metaphor for the filmmaker's career. The story of a successful but creatively stifled chef who finds happiness driving a humble food truck, the movie is filled with obvious parallels, beginning with Favreau's own trajectory from indie maverick (the 1996 charmer "Swingers") to manufacturer of Hollywood blockbusters like "Iron Man." In interviews, Favreau has been having none of this, but you be the judge. Here's the plot:
Carl Casper, played by Favreau (who also wrote, directed and produced), runs the kitchen at Gauloises, a popular but predictable Los Angeles hot spot. He yearns to take chances, but the owner, Riva (a fierce Dustin Hoffman), would rather please crowds. "Be an artist on your own time," he snaps. When a scathing review from food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) shreds Carl like pork pernil, Carl suffers a public breakdown and walks off the job. Adrift, he goes back to basics by driving a Cuban sandwich truck.
Favreau may not be equating his "Iron Man" with bland ahi tuna, or his widely panned "Cowboys & Aliens" with molten lava cake (which Ramsey dismisses as "needy, yet somehow irrelevant"), but one thing is certain: "Chef" is a labor of love. Favreau embodies Carl so thoroughly, and draws his world with such authentic detail, that "Chef" becomes irresistible. Thanks also to Kramer Morgenthau's tender cinematography, you'll find yourself salivating for one of Carl's cubanos and a side of tostones.
Favreau wrings four-star performances from a cast that includes big-name friends (Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson in small but sparkling roles), two perfectly chosen character actors (John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale as Carl's kitchen colleagues) and an absolutely winning Emjay Anthony as Carl's 10-year-old son, Percy, who hops aboard the truck for summer vacation. Only Sofia Vergara feels slightly underused as Carl's ex-wife.
The movie's problems aren't small: It moves slowly, meanders everywhere and never quite arrives at a destination. But just like Carl's little truck, "Chef" has great fun on its journey.
PLOT A prominent L.A. chef chucks his job to drive a humble food truck.
RATING R (strong language and grown-up humor)
CAST Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, Sofia Vergara
BOTTOM LINE Favreau's independent labor of love feels like dessert without a meal: irresistibly sweet, though not much substance.