Favreau measures the focus of his film between friendship and food. Lustful shots of sizzling oil, boiling pasta and barbecued meats are certainly tempting, with the director bringing in food truck pioneer Roy Choi to provide firsthand experience. The result is effective; there is no doubt that Carl is committed to his trade and the joy that it brings the people that he serves.
Where Chef falls short is in the relationships between Carl and his family and peers, specifically with his son. What should be a bittersweet bond that develops throughout the film, is a stop-start affair with an unlikable attitude from father to son. Carl’s reluctance to take a pre-pubescent Percy on the road doesn’t stem from taking his child away from his home, but because he doesn’t want him getting in the way. On more than one occasion Carl tells Percy that he has no time for him, and only when he is of use in the kitchen does he receive open praise. The fact that Anthony delivers a charming and patient performance further accentuates the awful manner in which Carl treats him.
There is also a constant arrogance that cannot be ignored in Chef. From start to sugary finish there is the impression of Favreau calling upon his friends for a public pat on the back. Robert Downey Jnr. makes a cameo as Robert Downey Jnr., thinly disguised as Inez’s other ex husband and thus providing mutual ground between the two very different men and their knockout of an old flame. Scarlett Johansson is Molly, appearing in the film’s first chapter solely for the purpose of indulging Carl’s ego and making climactic noises as she eats his food (after spending the night with him). And Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale play the awestruck employees who literally pat Favreau on the back, soaking him in compliments and bowing to his authority, even when he is no longer their boss.
The tone flirts between humour and sentiment but never sticks long enough to erase the need for a more likeable lead. Jokes about Carl’s ignorance towards social media would be better received if he didn’t have a new iPhone in his hand for the most part of the film, and whereas the remaining humour is more mature it is no less predictable.
Those who are happily distracted by mouthwatering, lovingly prepared food with an equally tantalising cast will walk away satisfied, though perhaps with a raging appetite. When the overindulgence spills from the food into the narrative however the result is bloated and begs for either heavier humour, or a more favourable protagonist.