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Ebiri on Chef: A Comfort Movie About Comfort Food

We’re not supposed to psychoanalyze directors through their movies, but it’s hard not to read a teensy bit of self-reflection into Chef, in which Jon Favreau returns to his indie roots by playing a hotshot chef who returns to his roots cooking simple sandwiches. Favreau first emerged back in the late 1990s, writing and starring in the indie comedies Swingers and Made, but eventually became the guy responsible for the Iron Man movies. And if we’re to read between the lines of this modest labor of love, it seems he thinks he lost his way, maybe just a little bit.

I wouldn’t go that far — Favreau’s contributions to Iron Man were welcome, and I mentally tip my hat to him whenever a superhero movie displays any of the irreverently comic attitude he brought to that franchise — but it’s still nice to have him back, especially as a lead. His mopey alpha-male in Chef is a far cry from his mopey lovesick comedian in Swingers, but both are affectionately united by their thin skins; by our knowing that if you scratch them, they’ll bleed. And, in this one’s case, he’ll scratch back, too: In Chef, Favreau plays Carl Casper, who gets into a very public and social-media-fueled beef with a big-shot food critic who gives him a nasty and unfairly personal review. “His dramatic weight gain is best explained by the fact that he must be eating all the food sent back to the kitchen,” the critic, played by Oliver Platt, writes. When the review goes viral, Carl joins Twitter and replies, “You wouldn’t know a good meal if it sat on your face.” The critic responds: “I would rather have you sit on my face after a brisk walk on a warm day than have to suffer through that fucking lava cake again.” (By the way, Oliver Platt is the brother of our own food critic, Adam Platt.)

It’s funny because it hurts, and it hurts because it’s true. While Chef indulges a bit too much in Carl/Favreau going on woundedly about the damage that a bad review does, it’s pretty much on the critic’s side: This chef doesn’t believe in his own food anymore. And so, having walked away from his job and humiliated himself on Twitter (and YouTube), Carl reluctantly accepts his ex-wife’s ex-husband’s offer of a busted-up old food truck – “a blank canvas for your dreams” – in Miami. Redemption, it seems, is just a cross-country trip and a few thousand Cuban sandwiches away. (By the way, the ex-wife is played by Sofia Vergara; the ex-husband is played by Robert Downey Jr.; Carl’s current girlfriend is played by Scarlett Johansson; the owner of his restaurant is played by Dustin Hoffman. Favreau may be tired of making Iron Man movies, but it’s good to be the king, no matter how modest your latest effort.)

Oh, wait, there’s a kid, too. Carl’s young son Percy (Emjay Anthony) has wanted some quality time with his workaholic dad for a while — not just going to movies or amusement parks, but actually spending time in the kitchen, getting to know what Carl does. And so, Percy becomes dad’s helper (and secret social media guru) on the food truck, alongside line chef Martin (John Leguizamo). Carl lets him try beer and buys him a chef’s knife. The young boy learns how to work the plancha, why you never serve a burnt sandwich, and the handy use of putting cornflour on your balls on a hot humid day. C’mon, it’s adorable!

Chef does occasionally display the kind of understated absurdity that made Favreau’s early work so special: Downey’s construction-material magnate insists everyone wear little plastic booties, even the hot receptionist with the six-inch heels; a puppet skeleton lip-synching Al Green’s “I’m So Tired of Being Alone” prompts a moment of epiphany. By and large, however, there are very few beats here that aren’t thoroughly predictable. But the writer-director-star, one suspects, wouldn’t have it any other way: This isn’t a movie about a chef who knocks everyone’s socks off with something unexpected or bold; it’s about one who knocks everyone’s socks off with a perfectly prepared traditional sandwich. A comfort movie about comfort food, Chef won’t knock your socks off, but it believes in itself — and for Favreau, that’s all that matters.