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Movie Review: “Chef”

Movie Review: “Chef”
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BY ALISON BAILES J

on Favreau drew on his own life to write “Swingers” in 1996. And he’s looking inside himself again for this culinary comedy where he plays a successful chef who quits his high-paid corporate gig in order to pursue his passion and rediscover his creativity for his craft. If only this could apply to his job as director and executive producer of the Iron Man franchise which he kicked off in 2008 with Robert Downey Jr. as the armored vigilante!

Not that he did a bad job with the series. But who needs another superhero movie these days?  Much better that Favreau (who also directed the fabulous “Elf”) turn his talents to a home-grown project close to his heart. This one doesn’t have the originality and pure brazen verve of “Swingers” which cast a hilarious light on L.A. and its Hollywood wannabes.

And the irony is that for all its clamoring about independence and beating one’s own path, this slick film follows a very formulaic agenda and slaps on a Hollywood happy ending. None of that makes this a bad movie of course. Lots of formulaic films succeed and this one does too, mainly due to Favreau’s honest script and a supporting cast who bring a bit of movie star oomph to the “indie” vibe. (Notably Scarlett Johansson in a teeny, tiny role).

Favreau plays celebrated chef Carl Casper who toils in an upscale Brentwood restaurant for wealthy clients who adore his delicious, but standard fare. When he is given a scathing review by a food critic (Oliver Platt), who dares to deride the French onion soup, filet of beef and molten lava cake, he itches to stretch his wings and dare to change his menu. But the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) is too nervous about the bottom line to change. After an altercation with the critic, which goes viral, Carl quits in rage. Favreau films the kitchen scenes with a winning authenticity. Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo play his sous-chefs and provide a running banter of salty dialogue and flying insults.

When these three men are on screen together the films sparkles with wit and energy. And when Favreau is having fun at the expense of Twitter (which he has used brilliantly to promote the film), he also gets it right. But Favreau should have heeded that well-known maxim “ leave the table wanting more”…and made some judicious cuts to the second half. Luckily Leguizamo sticks around for Acts 2 and 3 and helps prevent it all deflating like a failed souffle.  Carl, at the request of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) travels down to Miami, meets his ex-wife’s other ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr. who has the highest joke to screen time ratio ever) and refurbishes a food truck to take on the road. At this point “Chef” becomes a picaresque road-movie where Carl rediscovers the joy of cooking and bonds with his young son (a startlingly good Emjay Anthony) who works the line in the cramped van.

From Miami, they travel to New Orleans and Austin stopping at real eateries and sampling some pretty awesome looking food. If you haven’t eaten at this point, you’ll start wishing the “El Jefe” truck would pull up to your armrest. Although constantly entertaining, witty and not without its poignant family moments, Favreau opts to tack on a ridiculous, implausible ending that made me roll my eyes. It is tantamount to the molten lava cake that Carl Casper has been serving for years. Such a lack of inspiration seems like a sad way to end such a good feast.

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