It is with some trepidation that I review Chef, because its main character breaks into a volcanic rage provoked by a less than positive review. So let me start by saying I enjoyed this film very much; it has some great laughs, and a sensual love of good food runs through it like a marvellous sauce binding the elements of a dish together. It does have its flaws though, and I am prepared to take the risk that a furious Jon Favreau will show up at my house.
Chef is an amiable, feelgood comedy written by, directed by, and starring Favreau. He plays Carl Casper, a talented chef with ambitions to be seen as a master of the culinary art. Carl is obsessed with his work; it is implied this ended his marriage, and it is causing him to drift away from his ten-year-old son Percy.
Unfortunately for Carl, his employer, Riva, is not interested in artistic development. Riva wants Carl to go on cooking the same dishes he has made for the last ten years. It is what might be considered gastropub food in the UK; good ingredients cooked well, but without the innovation or sophistication worthy of a Michelin star.
Carl wishes to rise to the challenge of pleasing a hugely influential food critic, played with gusto by Oliver Platt. Riva refuses to support him, starting a chain of events which culminates in Carl becoming infamous for a public meltdown, videos of which go viral online. He loses his job, and his newfound reputation means he has little prospect of finding another.
So far, the film is compelling and enjoyable. Carl has no job, no money, and he has become an Internet joke, but with help from his friends, his ex-wife, and his ex-wife's wealthy ex-husband, he might just be able to turn his life around and reconnect with his son.
From this point onwards, Carl's path becomes eerily smooth. He encounters problems, but they vanish in a matter of moments. He needs a job? His ex-wife's ex-husband buys him a food truck. The film just about gets away with this, because it has already set up the idea and Robert Downey Jr plays the ex-husband as a hilariously deranged person who does inexplicable things all the time, but later events have no such excuse.
Carl is unable to talk some surly Cuban labourers into installing his equipment? Carl's former sous-chef was last seen in Los Angeles, but in the nick of time he shows up in Miami, and in his fluent Spanish convinces the Cubans to help. Percy (who is only ten years old, remember) helps his father run the food truck and burns his hand on a hot grill, but don't worry, he's fine and he can keep on working!
I could give four or five other examples. Carl works hard at cooking delicious Cuban food to sell from his truck, and everything else falls into place. It is so easy it is almost spooky, and it kills any chance of suspense or drama. Does the elderly truck break down on their road trip from Miami to Los Angeles? Is there a problem with getting supplies at a crucial moment? No, and no. Nothing hinders Carl's rise and eventual triumph.
I'm not asking for Carl's comeback to be a desperate struggle. It's fine for characters in a comedy to face cute, trivial, comedic problems. The conflicts in a typical Friends episode are about as substantial as candyfloss, but they are more formidable and longer-lasting than anything in the second half of Chef.
Even moments of real pathos are gently skated around. In a state of despair and anger, Carl goes home and cooks a fabulously exquisite meal, enough to serve half a dozen people. He is all alone, with a magnificent feast and no one to share it. What happens to all this beautiful food? Does Carl throw it away? Does he eat it himself until he can eat no more? Does he give it away, or cram it into his fridge so that he is still eating stale haute cuisine a week later? The audience has no idea.
The opening course is a pleasing achievement, with a fine choice of seasoning. The dessert is not without interest, but far too sugary and lacking in texture for my taste.