Attractive, well-acted ‘Chef’ hardly makes a ripple

By Gary Clift

Even some Manhattanites who are aware of the recently released and much praised “Chef” may not know it has arrived here. They won’t know why it is playing two matinees every afternoon and no evening shows. Heck, they won’t even know the tickets are (or at least were) buy one, get one free. The movie business has some trouble communicating with its customers.

On the other hand, “Chef’s” director and writer and lead actor Jon Favreau has established his ability to communicate with movie-goers. It’s been thirty years since his appearance in “P.C.U.” and twenty-eight since his turn in “Swingers” (along with his old collaborator Vince Vaughn). Now we tend to think of Favreau as director of “Iron Man,” not as the nutty linebacker in “The Replacements.”

“Chef” feels a little more like “Made” or “Swingers” than it does like “Couples Retreat” or “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Perhaps unfortunately, it also seems more like a set of detailed cooking demonstrations (backed by indy-label dance music) than it does like a narrative film. How many edited sequences of vegetable chopping can you watch in a couple of hours? That’s the key question for those who discover that “Chef” is showing in town.

Those visits to the Food Channel aside, the movie’s story is about three problems a hot-shot Los Angeles cook has to overcome. The sub-plots are essentially nested.

So the big one is about Chef Carl’s professional problem with a restaurant critic for an Internet site. Carl (Favreau) knows that his former supporter (Oliver Platt) is coming to dinner at the place he runs for an owner played by Dustin Hoffman. The boss won’t let the chef change the menu. And the critic complains that the menu has gotten stale.

Misunderstanding how the Internet works, Carl sends an insult to the critic, then gets on YouTube haranguing the food blogger. Our hero is fired from his job, which among other things breaks his connection with the restaurant’s hostess, who is Scarlett Johansson made up to look like Krysten Ritter.

Then on to the other stories. Carl’s amicable divorce from his ex-wife Inez (Sonia Vergara) has left him lonely. But he has concentrated too much on his career, and that has also made some problems in his continuing relationship with their nine-year-old son.

Inez provides him with a way to fix all three problems. She is flying off to Miami, where she and Carl met, to do some sort of business—she’s an actress or a model or something. While she’s there, Carl will babysit his own son. And she will arrange for him to get a “food truck” (a panel truck fitted out as a mobile kitchen from which sandwiches and tacos can be sold) from her other ex-husband.

This turns out to be a clean freak—he requires that everyone to wear disposable booties while inside his windowless offices—played by Robert Downey Jr., who can’t weigh more than 140 pounds. While he is giving the cook the dirty old vehicle, this character lets it out that he may have had sex with their ex-wife. Inez is oddly happy to hear that this makes Carl jealous.

And their son Percy is happy to help his father in cleaning out and re-fitting the truck. Carl, soon joined by old assistant Martin (a toned-down John Leguizamo), decides to teach the kid how to cook. Soon the three of them, thanks to Percy’s tweets and Carl’s YouTube fame, are selling Cuban sandwiches to large crowds along the beach.

They begin to drive, headed for California. The kid wants to visit New Orleans, and somehow they are a success selling poor boys and beignets a few blocks from Cafe du Monde. Then they travel on to Austin. The kid is taking one second videos with his phone every once in a while. The resulting montage will force Dad to realize something about his life that moviegoers already know.

The story reaches its climax when Platt’s character re-appears. And then there’s a nice little denouement to end this visually-attractive and well-acted little picture.

Too bad about the cooking videos. And about the inability of the Carmike chain to let folks who want to like movies know that “Chef” is in town. And that tickets were two for one. Heck, I would have taken somebody with me to the showing I attended, had I but known. Somebody who bought popcorn.

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