When celebrity chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) rails on about being creatively stalled throughout the first third or so of Chef, it’s clear that Favreau, who wrote and directed the film, is addressing his own struggles as an artist. Working at a high-scale bistro in California, and dictated to by an unsympathetic owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), Casper chooses to vent his frustrations on Twitter and, by mistaking a live tweet for a personal message, starts an online beef with a popular food blogger, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). When the blogger agrees to give Casper another chance, Riva refuses to let his chef cook something new and adventurous, and the entire ordeal snowballs into a professional nightmare, complete with a viral video of Casper’s meltdown over a nasty review. As Favreau familiarly suggests, the artist is rarely, if ever, to blame for the dullness and safety of their work, and it’s actually the overseers and their addiction to formula that have rendered menus bland and repetitive.
When Riva hands down an ultimatum (cook our menu or leave), Casper takes off to Miami with his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), and his ex-wife, Inez (Sofía Vergara), for some much-needed mind-clearing, only to suddenly decide to refurbish a food truck and start his own business. The food truck, from which Casper serves Cuban sandwiches and yucca fries, is a runaway success, but Favreau’s film comes off as flippant in its view of independent labor as a universally liberating experience for an artist and businessman. The stress and uncertainty of the venture, to say nothing of the nuances and rigor of self-employment, never comes into play. Casper bemoans creating a menu for the masses, rather than experimenting and exploring new flavors, but Favreau fails to express anything perceivably personal about food-truck and foodie culture or social media, which makes the entire conceit feel shallow.
Most of Chef ends up being told through the lens of a father-son story, wherein overworked Casper realizes that spending time talking with Percy is better than taking him out to stare at a movie screen. It’s a rote dynamic, and Favreau’s take on being a single father and entrepreneur is near-fantastical in its assumption that simply doing what you love will relieve all of one’s stresses, and subsequently rebuild a broken home. Casper talks a good game with Percy about hard work, but the film seems only passingly interested in visually imparting a full sense of the studied skill, creative frustration, and physical labor that goes into cooking. Even when Casper is seen preparing dishes, Favreau’s aesthetic never captures the uniqueness of his character’s talent, focusing instead on the hungry anticipation of his customers, patrons, friends, and family.
Indeed, there’s something just a bit uncouth about the way the writer-director gets Scarlett Johansson, as the bistro’s hostess, on screen to do little more than gaze seductively, half-dressed, as Casper cooks her a late-night snack. In the cameo department, Robert Downey Jr. has the much better scene as Inez’s idiosyncratic ex, a character whose purpose is solely to deliver a handful of expositional lines that Downey makes sing with his erratic yet charming delivery. The cast, which also includes John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale as Casper’s fellow cooks, is completely game for Favreau’s rambling, talking-over-each-other dialogue, but the intermittent chemistry isn’t enough to sustain such a bloated story; the same could be said about the sporadic blips of clever framing.
The deathblow, however, is the film’s risible relationship to Twitter, for which Chef ostensibly serves as an extended advertisement. Many of Casper’s discussions with Percy involve the pre-teen first teaching his father how to properly use Twitter, and then connect to his potential customer base through the service and build up his small business, which he does without a modicum of struggle. What’s worse, Favreau fills a considerable portion of his frames with tweet bubbles, which serve no function but to consistently remind us of how much everyone loves Favreau’s character. The bad punchline to all of this is that, despite the fact that Favreau praises the humility and creative freedom of going independent here, Chef comes off as his most self-satisfied, safe, and compromised film to date.