Writer-director-star Jon Favreau cooks up tureens of fun and charm in "Chef," a welcome return to his more intimate, indie film roots ("Swingers," "Made") after helming such mega-budget pictures as "Iron Man," "Iron Man 2" and "Cowboys & Aliens."
As Carl Casper, a respected L.A. chef who finds himself at a creative and career crossroads when his restaurateur boss (Dustin Hoffman) irrevocably cramps his style, the bearishly charismatic Favreau is flat-out terrific. Warm, dimensional and intuitive, his Carl proves an ideal combo of top dog and underdog — as well as a thoroughly credible kitchen master.
Carl's journey to find his bliss officially begins when he has a messy meltdown in front of a critical food blogger (Oliver Platt) that's caught on video and goes viral. Carl realizes he needs a culinary second act, but what to do?
His answer comes via an invitation from his affable ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), to join her and their 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), on a trip to Carl's native Miami. Turns out that's where a business opportunity awaits Carl in the form of a second-hand food truck, courtesy of Inez's first husband (Robert Downey Jr.), an eccentric entrepreneur.
Before you can say "Cuban sandwiches para todos," Carl, with the help of former restaurant cohort Martin (John Leguizamo) and the game, fast-learning Percy, are whipping out superb comfort food from the brightly renovated truck dubbed "El Jefe" and taking Miami by storm.
Twitter-tracked food vending stops follow in New Orleans and Austin, Texas, as Carl and company drive the truck back to L.A. — and to a seemingly bright future. But there still may be one more surprise in store for chef Carl.
If this all sounds fairly rote, it's far from it. That's because the filmmaker largely eschews done-to-death family dynamics, forced obstacles and predictable responses for authentic interaction, organic humor and a hopeful vitality. (The vibrant, Latin-infused soundtrack adds much to the film's infectiousness.) And, even if this nearly two-hour movie could have withstood some tightening, its likable looseness remains more plus than minus.
Favreau has been blessed with a terrific supporting cast, all of whom hit their sweet spots here. In addition to expert turns by Hoffman, Downey Jr., Leguizamo and an especially appealing Vergara, Bobby Cannavale and Scarlett Johansson are tops as Carl's old restaurant co-workers, while Amy Sedaris is a riot as a persistent publicist. Kudos as well to young Anthony, who's adorable, natural and winning; he and Favreau share some wonderful father-son bonding moments.
As for the movie's food porn quotient: Like most else here, it doesn't disappoint.
MPAA rating: R for language, including suggestive references
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes