Back in the 80s, fast food giant Wendy’s launched a very successful advertising campaign with a tagline that, to this day, remains in the minds of everyone who saw it on TV back then:
Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau, who also wrote, directed and co-produced the film) works at upscale restaurant in Los Angeles. He’s in a bit of a creative rut, having cooked the same menu for the past 10 years. On the day that an influential food critic plans to review the restaurant (aren’t they supposed to be impromptu visits?), Carl decides to inject some inspiration into the menu. However, the restaurant’s owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), will hear nothing of it and he gives Carl an ultimatum to either continue cooking the usual fare or look for a new job.
Carl packs up his knives but not before the critic slays Carl’s food – and Carl – in his very popular blog. Carl’s reputation appears to be ruined. (If the Kardashians, Britney Spears and Justin Bieber have shown us anything about the notion of “bad press”, my bet would be that Carl’s street cred would soar following his social media-captured, post-review tirade.) With no prospects on the horizon, Carl’s ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), convinces him to accompany her and their son, Percy (Emjay Anthony) on a business trip to Miami. (We never do find out what she does but she’s apparently very successful at it.) While there, she connects him with her first ex-husband and, apparently, post-divorce bonk, Marvin (Robert Downey Jr., who seemed to be channeling back to his coke-fuelled days). Marvin gives Carl a heap of a food truck, which Carl and Percy magically transform in just one afternoon into the hippest restaurant on wheels in South Beach.
It seems that Inez was right. Making Cubanos (grilled ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches) for the real people is the way for Carl to get his mojo back. Along with best friend and sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) and Percy, who like all 10-year-olds is a social marketing genius, Carl takes the summer off to drive back to Los Angeles, reconnecting with his son, his food and his fans.
On paper, this should have been a good movie. It had all the right ingredients – food porn, upbeat Latino music, a star-studded cast and a buddy road trip. Unfortunately, all Favreau served up was a big, fluffy bun. No beef, or perhaps more aptly, no caliente – no heat. Yes, there were some scenes of greatness, which all involved food and music, but the rest of the film was just one long, boring commercial for Twitter. Two scenes, in particular, were especially irksome. The first had Percy signing Carl up for a Twitter account. Twitter should just post that clip on their website’s FAQ page. It couldn’t have been clearer. The second had the guys stopping off at the Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, to pick up and enjoy a few briskets. I have seen the same segment on the TV’s TOP CHEF. This film has taken product placement to a whole new low.
Favreau has had a mostly successful career in both the director’s and the producer’s chairs (he executive produced the IRON MAN series and directed the first two installments) but with CHEF he may have bitten off more than he could chew. Aside from writing a very uneven screenplay, the editing was off too. In one scene with his friends in a bar, John Leguizamo lights up the same cigarette three times. And, in the argument scene with Dustin Hoffman, it was very clear that the tension between the two characters was forced. Hoffman is a much better actor than that so I can only assume that the fault lies with Favreau as the director.
CHEF is one bland disappointment. It may have had aspirations to be a delicious Cubano, but all we got on the plate was processed ham and American cheese on toasted Wonder bread.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 27:30.)