Monday, May 12, 2014
You can't say Jon Favreau lacks for chutzpah.
Playing Carl Casper in his new film "Chef," Favreau casts Sofia Vergara as Carl's still-in-love ex-wife, Inez, and no less than Scarlett Johansson as Molly, the hostess he brings home to his Venice apartment after hours for pasta primavera and a little clandestine canoodling. We all died with Favreau as he dug his grave with drunken late-night voicemails in 1996's "Swingers," and this crowd-pleasing picture proves we're still on his side.
It opens on the day Carl's Brentwood restaurant is to be reviewed by the most important food critic in Los Angeles, a Jonathan Gold type named Ramsey Michel (played by Oliver Platt, brother of New York magazine food critic Adam Platt). Platt has fun in the part, but it's ill defined. Ramsey supposedly sold his blog, The Digital Palate, for millions (uh huh), and it shows him seated at a table with his face blurred, as if to preserve his anonymity; yet he tweets his upcoming restaurant visits (a no-no) and makes no attempt to dine incognito.
Carl wants to cook Ramsey an all-new, experimental menu, but the owner, Riva (a perfect five-minute dose of Dustin Hoffman), reminds Carl who's boss and demands he cook his ever-popular standbys, from his famed caviar-egg appetizer through his truffle risotto, culminating in his beloved chocolate lava cake. Rather incredibly, the staff takes Carl's side, because we know there's nothing professional servers loathe more than a consistently full house of diners contentedly ordering expensive items. Still, Carl compromises his integrity and performs his standard repertoire, leading Ramsey to lambaste Carl, one of his early discoveries, for not challenging himself. He singles out the lava cake as particularly insipid.
Carl comes out of the kitchen to tear Ramsey a new one in a crazed and protracted rant caught on tape by a dozen guests. The video goes viral and suddenly the restaurant's the toughest res in town. But when Riva still wants Carl to stick to his greatest hits, Carl walks out, leaving his sous-chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and line cook Martin (John Leguizamo) to fend for themselves. There's a very funny scene of the kitchen at its most manic, with orders printing out faster than the chocolates came down the line at Lucy and Ethel's candy factory.
Inez, perhaps the sweetest ex-wife in movie history, first hooks Carl up with her agent, Jen (Amy Sedaris), who wants to book him on "Hell's Kitchen." He wants no part, though, so Inez ships him off to Miami, where another of her exes, Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr. - yes, Favreau cashed in a lot of chits), sets him up with a grody, barely street-legal food truck. After washing it about twenty times and outfitting it, Carl sets off cross-country with Percy, his quality time-deprived son (the perfectly dimpled Emjay Anthony, with whom the audience falls instantly in love) and Martin, who conveniently flies to Miami to work with him for nothing!
The three share much good-natured interplay as they head back to L.A., but, man, is this hour of the movie ever slack. With Percy's prowess on Twitter and Vine, the El Jefe food truck attracts down-the-block lines wherever it goes, yet seems to offer more of whatever each city is best known for. In Miami, it's Cuban pork sandwiches and yucca fries; in New Orleans, beignets; and in Austin (they stop outside a fair where the same performer apparently sings the blues from afternoon to evening), brisket. "Chef" works best as food porn if, like Woody on "Cheers," your favorite ingredient is pork; for me, the acme was a stroke-on-a-plate grilled cheese sandwich.
Even at an overlong two hours, "Chef" goes down easy. I like that Favreau didn't re-take a couple of slightly flubbed line readings by Hoffman and Vergara; it's a welcome break from the norm, in which everyone elocutes like a speech therapist. There are a number of amusing cameos, and the entire enterprise is marked by uncommon goodwill. (It seems churlish to note that the music-dependent vitality flags whenever the script calls on Anthony to shift into pathos.) As the credits rolled, my audience gave "Chef" hearty applause. Of course they did; it's the ultimate cinematic chocolate lava cake.