Ahead of the inaugural screening of Jon Favreau's latest film "Chef,” the movie is being heralded as a glorious return to the filmmaker's independent roots. Favreau, after all, wrote "Swingers," one of the more influential indies of the '90s, and reteamed with his "Swingers" co-star Vince Vaughn for a madcap mobster comedy with 2001's "Made" (a film that he directed, too). Since then, he's been swayed by the Hollywood machine, turning out a number of big budget smashes (“Iron Man”) but these films were, to many degrees, tentpole-anonymous; possessing little evidence of the voice that made him such a sensation in the first place. And while the more down-to-earth "Chef" does offer some fascinating autobiographical dimensions, the film is also an overlong, unfunny, largely insufferable bore. This doesn't feel like a homecoming; it feels like a step backwards into a generic Culver City studio zip code.
Starring in as well as writing and directing the picture, Favreau plays a celebrity chef working for a lenient but largely disagreeable boss (Dustin Hoffman) at a hot restaurant in Los Angeles. After Hoffman leans on him to cook a safe and uncreative meal for a powerful food critic (Oliver Platt), Favreau's dishes are then panned. His "creative rut" becomes a full on existential crisis, complete with a heated meltdown at the restaurant, in front of Platt and a whole host of onlookers, who capture the "hilarious" blow up on their cell phones, for all of eternity (or at least however long the social media cycle lasts). Not even the super hot hostess at the restaurant (Scarlett Johansson, with phony riot girl tattoos and Betty Page black hair) can soothe his worried soul; it's that bad.
Already suffering from a strained relationship with his son (Emjay Anthony) and ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), Favreau agrees to accompany the family on a trip to Miami. The ex has some kind of mystery job that is never fully explained but allows for a truly lavish lifestyle, and she offers to pay for Favreau's ticket. She wants their son to spend time with his grandfather, and she thinks that exposure to some more local cuisines will reignite Favreau's passion for cooking (his passion for eating is never questioned—Favreau seems to be shoving food into his face in every single scene). His lieutenants in the kitchen—played by Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo in game supporting comedic player roles—stay behind, as he embarks on a journey of self-discovery, one in which he looks to reconnect with his love of cooking and with his family. And both are in need of serious rehabilitation.
What makes "Chef" somewhat watchable, at least for the first 45 minutes or so, is how clearly autobiographical the movie is. Since "Made," Favreau has produced a series of hugely expensive studio tentpoles, many of them missing their mark ("Iron Man 2") or bombing hard ("Cowboys & Aliens"). In "Chef," Favreau purchases a junky old food truck and rekindles all of the sensations that were dead to him before, and this middling, too on-the-nose little independent movie is a clear stand-in for the truck. What makes much of the movie then feel rotten is the fact that Favreau's character cooks uninspired food for Platt and turns around with contempt for Platt’s review pan. Is this really Favreau saying, "Hey, a lot of good people worked on 'Cowboys & Aliens,' cut us some slack?" If so: woof.
Once the truck arrives to ostensibly reawaken the spirit that the soulless, trendy LA restaurants (or studio suits) nearly crushed, the cook piles his young son into it and heads back to the promised land of WeHo. They are joined, as if by magic, by Leguizamo, who somehow knows exactly where they will be and offers to be the Robin to Favreau's food truck Batman. And off they go—on an adventure full of tweets (Favreau, who is now addicted to that sweet drug known as visual effects, has the tweets appear hovering overhead and then flying away, accompanied by a chirpy bird sound effect) and overtly earnest moments of fatherly bonding. And, of course, lots and lots of cooking.
Closely resembling a road trip movie, this whole middle section of the movie is bland and predictable. Once the gang embarks on some new leg of the journey, you can bet that there is going to me a nifty montage accompanied by a Latin-flavored pop song (including, bafflingly, some kind of salsa cover of "Sexual Healing"). It's sappy, it's derivative (he even lifts a shot from Michael Bay's "Bad Boys"), and it lacks spontaneity and edge. Even an out-of-nowhere cameo from Robert Downey Jr., as one of Vergara's ex-husbands, can't enliven the proceedings. What's the point of returning to the world of independent cinema if Favreau is going to play it centered so far away from the margins?
Even attempts at illustrating character substance fall flat. This ad-hoc family drives by a Disney World at one point and instead of choosing the Happiest Place on Earth, Favreau’s son chooses a detour to New Orleans to try out all the good food. Not only does the move feel disingenuous, but it’s ironic considering Favreau’s been suckling from this same corporate teat for the last decade or so. Whether this is a conscious biting of the hand that feeds is up for debate, seeing as no other elements of the movie feel even vaguely subversive.
As "Chef" stretches into its excessively sentimental third act, in which even more groan-worthy life lessons are learned and an improbable wedding is staged, the movie goes from being boring to exceedingly tedious (it even steals a major plot point from Pixar's superior chef movie "Ratatouille"). It's not as earth-shatteringly awful as last year's SXSW opener "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," but it's damn close. To borrow one of the many lame metaphors it employs, "Chef" feels horribly undercooked. But if you want to see a self indulgent, hubris-driven car crash where the filmmaker uses his latest narrative as a thinly-veiled defense of his past career transgression, this is the movie for you. A phony and hokey return to origins, it’s unclear what’s worse: Favreau delivering a repast less substantive than the tone-deaf Happy Meals he's been making for the past decade, or his genuine misguided belief that he’s prepared an authentic home-cooked meal. [D-]
This is a reprint from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.