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May 16, 2014

Long ago, back when ska and lounge lizards began their brief, semi-ironic late-’90s comeback, there was a little indie movie called Swingers, written by and starring Jon Favreau. The same who who directed blockbusters like the first two Iron Man movies and Cowboys & Aliens? Yes, that Jon Favreau. Now he’s back with another indie film: the delightfully personal Chef.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is the titular Chef, former Food & Wine Best New Chef, but now in a creative rut. He’s been cooking the same menu in his Los Angeles restaurant for five years. It really comes home when an influential food blogger (Oliver Platt) lays down a scorching, snarky review. A misunderstanding about Twitter leads to a flame war, and after the video of Carl’s own fire-breathing rant goes viral he’s out of a job and so radioactive that only Hell’s Kitchen will touch him.

Carl’s ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), invites him to come along and take care of their son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), on a trip to Miami, where they’d met and he had his first success as a chef. His resistance worn down, he finally meets with her other ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr.) and accepts the offer of help starting a food truck. Joined by his son and one of his former line cooks (John Leguizamo), the newly-minted @ChefCarlCasper sets off to drive the truck back to L.A.

If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that Favreau front-loads all the conflict, but I found it a refreshing and relaxing change of pace. After destroying Carl’s life in the first hour, the second hour provides a fun and charming road trip to heal the wounds not just of the setup, but of the preceding years of stagnation. Carl not only gets back to the kind of cooking he loves, but gets to repair his relationship with his son.

Anthony is a cute and believable kid in a surprisingly important role for a child actor. Percy is eager to be part of his father’s life, and he turns out to be essential to building the new truck’s social media presence. Speaking of which, Favreau has come up with some of the most natural uses of Twitter and Facebook on film.

But the story is also intensely personal. It’s hard not to see Carl’s rant as Favreau’s own entry into the “snark wars”. I admit I don’t always avoid it myself, but there are a lot of critics who seem to live for snidely cutting down filmmakers from the comfort and safety of their computer screens. Yes, Zathura may have felt like a by-the-numbers knock-off of Jumanji and Couples Retreat may have been an unimaginative Vince Vaughn vehicle — the boring menu at Galouise’s — and audiences may have turned their noses up at something as unusual as Cowboys & Aliens — the diners’ response when Carl tried to offer sweetbreads — but there’s a real person writing or directing these movies, and “criticism” that only exists to point and laugh at someone trying to create something can really hurt.

Of course, that’s not going to stop everyone. There are already a handful of snide, ignorant reviews of Chef, duly enshrined on Wikipedia, where the “neutral point of view” is as enshrined as Fox News’ “fair and balanced”. Don’t listen to them; nothing good comes from simple, spiteful mockers that can’t recognize a good thing when they see it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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