Chef comes alive when it resembles a cooking procedural, going through the details of preparing a meal for a food critic or cleaning and re-assembling a taco truck.
Back in the '90s, Jon Favreau was a character actor who scraped together the occasional indie movie. He wrote Swingers (Doug Liman 1996), a dude-based post-breakup romantic comedy that helped launch both a brief swing revival and Vince Vaughn's comedy career, and then wrote and directed Made, also starring Vaughn. After launching a number of movie brands (Elf, the Marvel Studios universe with Iron Man), Favreau returns to indie-scale filmmaking with Chef.
A successful Los Angeles chef, Carl Casper (Favreau) spends distracted time with his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony), the film seems to be translating the bro banter of Swingers into uneasy parent-child fumbling, now counseling his kid on spicy food he's never tried rather than counseling a buddy how many days to wait before calling a girl.
That exchange and a few others have a casual real-life rhythm. Too often, though, Favreau meanders his way into that rhythm. The movie begins with Carl working at a well-regarded restaurant owned by Riva (Dustin Hoffman). When he receives word that critic Ramsey Michael (Oliver Platt) will be stopping by, Carl wants to experiment with his food. Riva insists on cooking his usual menu. The evening results in a professional tailspin for Carl, who often lavishes attention on his job rather than poor Percy, his child with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara).
Chef ostensibly follows Carl as he rediscovers his passion for cooking, but insists on taking a substantial internet-tutorial detail to get there. Favreau the actor takes obvious pleasure in affecting a lack of knowledge about how the internet works, which is more distracting than illuminating. Favreau is in his late 40s and, if anything, his character here seems even younger, by virtue of son's age. How much longer can movies pretend a character like this doesn't use computers? (Then again, this is only one of several clichés in Chef, including that moment when the subject of a restaurant review reads it for the first time aloud, not realizing it's going to turn harsh.)
Carl's ignorance turns into a major digression as his relationship with the anonymous online community becomes the focus of a wan buddy comedy. First he learns to use Twitter, followed shortly by embarrassing himself on Twitter. Then he becomes the subject of a viral video, and sees his reputation take a hit, until his son starts using social media for savvy marketing! This is a movie that expects the audience to thrill to the spectacle of live tweeting. It's also uncomfortably easy to read as a parable for Favreau's directing career: he started with a particular voice, applied his skills to mass-appeal blockbuster fare, presumably took some hits on social media (is Ramsey Michael everyone who complained about Iron Man 2), and now returns to his roots. Rediscover your voice; screw the money guys and the online haters!
Despite a clear intended arc, though, little seems to be at stake in Chef, which combines comedy with drama in a casserole of neither. The drama of Carl's relationship with Percy doesn't cohere because Percy doesn't really have his own personality; rather, he's defined entirely by his interest in his dad's work. The same is true of Inez. While it's nice to see ex-spouses who treat each other with warmth and caring, Inez spends a lot of time fretting about Carl's crises (and he doesn't return the favor).
Meanwhile, on the movie's sorta-comedy side, the wisecracks from Carl's likable coworkers (John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale) are not wise and do not crackle, despite the actors' charm. Additional performers are equally charming, as Favreau calls in favors from a couple of Avengers (Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey, Jr.), who appear very briefly (Downey in one scene). Obviously Chef isn't meant as a showcase for Johansson, but Favreau might have divided her scenes in a way that gave her a real character, rather than one of three other restaurant employees offering Carl various degrees of support (in addition to the support he receives from his son and ex-wife).
The movie's strengths come from its milieu rather than its numerous and sketchy characters. Chef comes alive when it resembles a cooking procedural, going through the details of preparing a meal for a food critic or cleaning and re-assembling a taco truck. These moments aren't particularly dramatic or funny either, but they feel lived-in and specific in a way that the rest of the movie, with its mild confrontations and onscreen Twitter graphics, does not. Most of Chef resembles some of Favreau's lesser Hollywood work, likable and watchable without much momentum.