As a writer, it’s often tempting to use a food metaphor in one’s work, laden as it is with universal comparisons and endless potential. It’s also easy to abuse them, and I say that not just because a food-minded movie like Jon Favreau’s “Chef” allows for plenty of opportunities to use such a metaphor, but because the movie itself already is such a metaphor.
Writer/director Favreau also stars as Carl Casper, an acclaimed chef in a self-described creative rut who’s tired of serving up more of the same dishes simply because they always sell well. A harsh review from an online critic (Oliver Platt, well-cast as a caricature) and the ensuing media fallout is enough to prompt Carl to quit, but with some encouragement from his generous ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and their Twitter-savvy son, Percy (Emjay Anthony, cute without becoming cloying), he decides to take his own food truck on the road and allow the cuisine to speak for itself.
If the Favreau-written “Swingers” concerned itself with the pursuit of meaningful romance and the Favreau-directed “Made” tackled the pursuit of a better living, then the slight if continually amusing “Chef” is clearly his paean to rekindling one’s passions, whether as an artist, a husband or a father. Coming off two “Iron Man” projects and the underwhelming “Cowboys & Aliens,” the parallels between Favreau’s character and his actual career are unavoidable, with snarky bloggers and bottom line-minded bosses getting thrown under the bus, and not without good reason. The indignation comes from a real, understandable place, sold equally through Favreau’s screenplay and performance leading up to and including the critical spat. (Compare against M. Night Shyamalan’s bitter, laughable depiction of critics in “Lady in the Water” to know just how badly this can go.)
What’s less convincing is the fact that every woman in Carl’s life -- besides Vergara, there’s Scarlett Johansson as a hostess and former flame -- exists almost exclusively to testify to Carl’s talents and value. “Chef” is at its best when demonstrating its creator’s talents rather than having characters explicitly expound on them, whether it’s a parade of food porn (a shrimp scampi seduction scene puts the lusty pie-making of “Labor Day” to shame) or just shaggy hang-out scenes between Favreau and Anthony, kitchen compatriots John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale or momentary motormouth Robert Downey, Jr. in what very well might have been Vince Vaughn’s part if made a decade earlier.
The back-half road trip back to L.A. by way of Miami, New Orleans and Austin is as shamelessly idealized as it is utterly earnest, and along those lines, Favreau’s own likeable screen presence prevents Carl from ever seeming too self-consumed to care about. (Imagine if Zach Braff’s navel-gazing sensibilities were instead channeled through the schlubby likes of a Kevin James.) Will he gets his groove back, and will he learn to appreciate his son along the way? You know the answer to both questions, and yet, until an exceedingly tidy ending, you don’t really mind. After all, just because a Cuban sandwich is composed of fairly simple ingredients doesn’t mean that it can’t be made well.