Chef, the new comedy written, directed by, and starring Jon Favreau, is being marketed as an independent film, and so it is to a certain extent. It was financed by an independent production company (Aldamisa Entertainment), and one of its central themes is finding creative fulfillment on personal terms. Yet the filmmaking couldn’t be more Hollywood minded; the sentimental plot and sitcom-ready one-liners would be right at home in a Billy Crystal vehicle, and Favreau’s concept of creative fulfillment has more to do with financial success than the artistic process. Either he’s terminally naive about what it means to be an independent artist or he’s internalized the cynicism of blockbuster filmmaking to the point that it’s inseparable from his worldview. Ultimately that’s a moot point, however, because Chef is so thin and bland it doesn’t even inspire contempt.
Favreau plays the respected chef of a fancy LA restaurant whose owner (Dustin Hoffman) forbids him from altering the popular menu. When the chef learns that a prominent reviewer (Oliver Platt) is coming in to dine, he pours his heart into creating new recipes, only for the boss to reject them. The critic raps the chef in his review, calling him unadventurous, and the chef goes ballistic, losing his job and lashing out at the critic in a tirade that becomes a viral video and makes him the laughingstock of the culinary world. To get him back on his feet, his wealthy, doting ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) finds him an abandoned food truck in Miami, which he agrees to drive back to Los Angeles with his adorable preteen son and his loyal assistant (John Leguizamo, wasted in his umpteenth sidekick role), selling Cuban sandwiches along the way. This time the Internet works in his favor, as his son uses social media to spread the word about the food truck and inspire a groundswell of support. I’ll leave it up to you to guess whether the hero repairs his broken relationships with the boy and his ex-wife in the process.
Having first gained attention for writing the indie comedy Swingers (1996), Favreau eventually settled into a successful career directing Hollywood blockbusters (Elf, Iron Man). One gets the impression from Chef that he longed to return to more personal filmmaking—or rather, that he longed to be perceived as a personal filmmaker without sacrificing his box office credibility. The movie gets in plenty of easy jabs at critics and bosses while presenting his character as being somehow above the petty infighting. It also presents the chef’s growing popularity on Twitter and Facebook as being more important to his creative rebirth than the food he cooks. If Chef were really about artistic independence, Favreau’s character would learn to disregard the hype, both good and bad, and use the food truck as a platform for his new creations. Instead he learns how to hype himself better while selling an inoffensive, highly familiar product—just like the guy who created him.