**1/2 (out of four)
His forearms tatted up, his beard a permanent fixture, Carl (writer-director Jon Favreau) very much looks like a chef (or, like Favreau's “Friends” character, an ultimate-fighter wannabe). He could have stepped out of Logan Square, but he’s running a kitchen in southern California, where the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) doesn’t believe in experimentation. The menu is the menu, and what works, works.
That attitude gets Carl a nasty review from an important critic (Oliver Platt) who once hailed the chef’s remarkable promise. The viciousness goes viral, sparking a Twitter war and then an in-person confrontation. Which of course is captured and spread via social media.
What will this once-rising star in the culinary world do, and how will it affect his relationship with his son (Emjay Anthony) and ex-wife (Sofia Vergara)? Favreau isn’t overflowing with ideas—two transparent statements early in the film make it very clear where multiple plotlines are headed. He also lets the movie overstay its welcome and stretch for warmth it hasn’t earned in an underdeveloped plot.
And yet, “Chef” is Favreau (whose last directorial effort was “Cowboys & Aliens” and last script was “Couples Retreat”) aiming to recapture the light, independent vibe of his “Swingers,” and the result is charming and personable. Surprising? No, but satisfying food doesn’t always have to be. This movie is rich and familiar, more likely to be returned to as comfort viewing than grumbled about for its shortcomings.
While the mildly funny, very predictable film bursts with eye candy (the other main female role is played by Scarlett Johansson), at no point does “Chef” feel like an example of an ego-pumping filmmaker pointlessly surrounding himself with beautiful women. Unlike John Turturro’s recent “Fading Gigolo,” “Chef” actually has a reasonably believable story and characters you kind of care about. Imagine that.
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