[Screen It]


(2014) (Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo) (R)

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Dramedy: A down-on-his-luck chef quits his restaurant job and starts his own food truck business while driving from Miami back to Los Angeles with his former employee and 10-year-old son.
Carl Casper (JON FAVREAU) isn't having a good life. Beyond being divorced from his now ex-wife, Inez (SOFIA VERGARA), and only occasionally getting to spend time with their 10-year-old son, Percy (EMJAY ANTHONY), his once promising and highly regarded career as run into a dead-end. While the restaurant where he works is quite popular and he gets along great with his staff including sous chef Tony (BOBBY CANNAVALE), line cook Martin (JOHN LEGUIZAMO), and hostess Molly (SCARLET JOHANSSON), he clashes with the owner, Riva (DUSTIN HOFFMAN), who wants the same menu prepared night after night.

That results in a mediocre review by food critic Ramsey Michel (OLIVER PLATT), something that doesn't sit well with Carl who takes to social media, not really knowing what he's doing, for his rebuttal. That eventually results in him quitting, with Inez offering for him to join her and Percy in Miami for business where he can watch their son and thus bond with him. She's also hoping that her former ex-husband, Marvin (ROBERT DOWNEY JR.), might be able to lend a hand. He does, in the form of an old food truck that Carl and Percy rehabilitate. Joined by Martin, they then proceed to serve delicious food to people from Miami back to Florida as they head off on their cross-country road trip.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Considering that it occurs in one form or another in just about every household in the U.S., it's no surprise that cooking as a business industry is, pardon the pun, hot stuff. A search on Amazon for "cookbooks" came back with more than 118,000 results, while the search for "cooking" on YouTube resulted in a count of six million plus related videos. Heck, there's an entire cable channel devoted to the culinary practice and plenty of other channels feature reality shows revolving around food preparation.

Thus, it's somewhat surprising that more movies don't focus on the same. Sure, many feature scenes of people making or consuming food, but not that many have that as the core of their story. Beyond the likes of "Julie & Julia," "Ratatouille" and "Big Night," I'd bet most viewers would be hard pressed to name ten additional titles in that genre (while doing so for action films, comedies, horror flicks and so on would be quite easy).

Perhaps sensing that void, actor/writer/director Jon Favreau has momentarily stepped aside from making studio tent pole flicks such as the "Iron Man" series and "Cowboys & Aliens" to whip up the decidedly leaner budgeted dramedy, "Chef." Working both in front of (as the protagonist) and behind the camera (as writer & director), Favreau tells the tale of a restaurant chef who views food preparation as an art, but is hampered by the "stay the course" mentality of the place's owner (Dustin Hoffman, one of a number of famous faces in extended cameo parts).

He's divorced from his wife (Sofia Vergara), doesn't have much of a connection with their 10-year-old son (Emjay Anthony), and probably knows his staff (including John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson and Bobby Cannavale) better than his own flesh and blood. After a bad review from a food critic (Oliver Platt), he eventually quits, gets an old food truck from his ex-wife's ex (Robert Downey Jr.) and rehabs that before driving cross-country with one of his former employees and his son.

It's a story about the love of food as well as reconnecting and recharging a father-son relationship, and it's in no particular hurry to tell its tale. In fact, the nearly two hour film feels longer than that, especially as it takes its sweet old time letting the plot simmer before getting into the meat of the offering. Not taking into account the fairly obvious jabs at critics who, well, critique rather than create, I found the "let's get the audience hungry" moments more effective than the "let's rehab the dad" material.

While it's not the first film to give food and its preparation near top billing, Favreau would seem to be a foodie as he lovingly lingers over shots of varied meals. In fact, I'd suggest not going in on an empty stomach as all of those visuals are so appetizing you'd swear you'll be smelling all of what's cooking. As far as the familial reconciliation bit, it works, but it's never given enough spice to make it come off as anything but reheated leftovers from similar tales.

Performances are fine but not remarkable across the board, with some of the more recognizable faces occasionally ending up as more of a distraction than addition to the mix. And for those with a distaste for montages, the film is filled with them to the point that one might assume the filmmaker found an endless buffet line and decided to load up on them, even if they're obviously not needed.

While some reviewers have been gushing over this offering, I can only assume it's because it wetted their appetite for a post-viewing culinary feast. I found "Chef" okay, but nothing special. It rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 5, 2014 / Posted June 6, 2014

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