Writer/director Jon Favreau's gentle comedy-drama Chef is an odd duck -- a schizoid effort that never seems to grasp its own strengths. It begins magnificently, as a swift and savage excoriation of Los Angeles culinary pretensions, before regressing into formulaic drivel.
Favreau stars as visionary Los Angeles chef Carl Casper, star player in the kitchen of restaurateur Riva (Dustin Hoffman). Carl specializes in cuisine so diabolically inventive that it would earn the instant approbation of Wolfgang Puck and Gordon Ramsay -- the sort of dishes that inspire "what is he thinking?" comments from onlookers, but then have rapt diners sinking into their chairs to savor every last moment of gustatory nirvana. The film opens on a huge day for Carl, Riva, and their team: Temperamental food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) has a reservation, and Carl has strange and wondrous entrées up his sleeve to knock the scribe off his feet. However, the obstreperous Riva strong-arms Carl into preparing conventional dishes, which sets the whole establishment up for a fall. Michel writes a scathing attack on the menu that they serve him, which churns up a firestorm of negative attention on Twitter. The technologically ignorant Carl flubs his response to Michel by attempting to take the man down in a profane e-mail message, but instead accidentally rakes the journalist over the coals in a public Twitter feed. This drops Casper into a sort of unofficial Iron Chef battle to fight off the crude insults of his nemesis -- all eyes are upon him as he demands that Michel return for a second try, vowing to thumb his nose at convention, save the restaurant's reputation, and make culinary history in the process.
Until this point, the movie feels not simply original but often dazzling, and we think we have a clear sense of its destination. The performances, too, are perfect in the early stages -- especially Favreau as the self-absorbed but somehow avuncular Casper, Hoffman as the reactionary boss, Scarlett Johansson as Riva's quietly seductive oenologist Molly, and Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo as Carl's support staff.
The saga then begins to veer off the rails with major lapses in credibility, as when Riva acknowledges his comprehension of the Twitter duel but forces Carl to prepare the exact same meal a second time. This makes no sense: Hoffman projects such a razor-sharp mind and incisiveness as Riva that the character's insistence on a repeat performance of the initial PR disaster with conventional dishes isn't simply unwise, but insane. Nor does Carl's face-to-face fight with Michel in front of other diners, which destroys his public reputation and his future at Riva's, make a bit of sense. We've seen Carl preparing an alternate meal on the sly, so why doesn't Favreau follow through with that idea? The fight seems to come from out of nowhere, and the "secret dinner" concept is dropped. Plausibility also flies out the window in a risible subsequent development that has Carl actually turning down the opportunity to wrest back his reputation by appearing on the reality program Hell's Kitchen.
We can't easily accept any of these twists as they seem so at odds with the characters. Nor can we readily embrace the picture's decision to jump the shark by abandoning the L.A. restaurant scene and morphing into a silly moral fable about Carl and his 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) traveling to Miami with Carl's ex-wife (and Percy's mother) Inez (Sofía Vergara) and sous-chef Martin (Leguizamo) to open a Cuban food truck. Among other things, the thought of a chef at Carl's skill level feeling any satisfaction preparing the same quick-service sandwiches every afternoon is laughable. Yet there Carl is, whipping up his Cubans as if he's never been happier. If you think about it, the developments here aren't terribly dissimilar from Garry Marshall's Overboard, in which Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn form a makeshift family and drum up a get-rich-quick scheme involving building a series of mini-golf courses -- and the last hour of Chef feels about as realistic.
If Favreau really wanted to make the Miami developments fly, he should have had Carl's publicist confront him -- in the days following his public breakdown -- with the news that no one, in Los Angeles or any other city, will hire him. The character needs that sort of dead-end situation to grow desperate enough to compromise himself by entering the food-truck business; we do get some flat-footed dialogue about his difficulty finding a new gig, but it is never presented as an absolute lack of alternatives.
Chef also suffers from the subplot involving Carl's Twitter feed, which is credible enough in the opening act but begins to feel tacked-on when Percy starts using the service to publicly "report" their progress on a road trip across the country in the food truck. Twitter may or may not have paid for formal product placement behind the scenes of this picture, but the online service gets dozens of mentions, brand recognition, and one particularly grating attack of the cutesies: Each time someone tweets in this movie, Favreau layers in an image of a tiny animated bird chirping and flying away. It's like something out of a misbegotten Disney picture, and that points to another uncomfortable problem with Chef. While the opening scenes feel cleverly vicious in their satire and are expressly geared toward adults, the dramatic arc of father-son bonding in the last hour also seems more apropos for a Disney drama -- and yet, this R-rated movie is littered with so many F-bombs and raunchy jokes (including one particularly disgusting double entendre involving Percy and a food product) that it would be verboten for family viewing. You start thinking about the picture and wondering who in the world it is aimed at: It's far too profane for families with children, but not nearly intelligent enough for discerning adults.
There are also narrative threads here that feel curiously underdeveloped and unresolved -- not least of which is the undeclared love between Molly and Carl. She is clearly smitten with him and the two radiate chemistry as a couple, so why Favreau instead moves the screenplay toward Carl's reconciliation with the sexy yet profoundly dull Inez is anyone's guess.
As mentioned, the performances here -- per Favreau's traditional strengths as a director -- are superb, but they exist in service of a lost cause. Undemanding viewers seeking a lighthearted crowd-pleaser may enjoy Chef, but there is something vaguely unsettling about a movie so afraid to take risks that it begins to sacrifice interior logic and idiosyncratic character journeys for the sake of a tried-and-true narrative progression that we've seen a thousand times before. Favreau has demonstrated in other projects that he is capable of far greater wizardry than anything here, which makes this film feel like a massive compromise on every level. If Chef begins as a wry, smart look at cutting-edge Los Angeles cuisine and makes us relish the luxurious food artistry of its hero, it ends up going down like baby food -- bland and easily digestible.