Tribeca: ‘Chef’ cooks up heartfelt comedy

Courtesy of Open Road Films

Audience members will smile from the beginning scenes of “Chef” and they may not know why. The situation is tense — the protagonist, chef Carl Gaspare, is stressed from his restaurant job, recently divorced and struggling to connect with his son. Despite this plotline, the film’s writer-director Jon Favreau approaches all of these obstacles with a certain engaging comedic charm and sincerity.

Favreau, who also plays Carl, takes viewers for a ride when one of Los Angeles’ most prestigious chefs almost has his career ruined after a popular critic rips apart his unimaginative menu. As the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) continues to forbid him from exploring his creative impulses, Carl quits the job.

But outside of the kitchen, Carl faces further problems involving his gorgeous ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and his young son (Emjay Anthony).

In need of a fresh start, Carl opens a food truck with the help of his son. A heartfelt but predictable story ensues, exploring Carl’s reinvigorated zeal for cuisine and the realization that family is perhaps the most important thing of all.

“Chef” primarily sets out to be a feel-good movie, and it succeeds in that respect. Despite Carl’s inflated ego, the audience roots for his comeback, as do his two colleagues and closest friends, played by the hilarious Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo. Short, hysterical cameos give the film extra life, including one with Robert Downey Jr., who plays his typical nonchalant narcissist as the ex-husband of Carl’s ex-wife.

As pleasant as the film is, there are some foundational shortcomings that detract from its potential. Several characters are introduced without being fleshed out, making it difficult for the film to focus on a single plotline.

In one of the more bizarre subplots, Carl invites the restaurant’s hostess (Scarlett Johansson) back to his apartment, where, instead of hooking up with Carl, she watches him cook pasta, making facial expressions of deep sexual lust. Aside from reminding Carl to spend more quality time with his son, Johansson’s character disappears from Carl’s life, making it seem like her only purpose was to flaunt Favreau’s celebrity connections.

Vergara reaches more serious and mature dimensions with her small role in “Chef” than she is able to do in “Modern Family,” but her appearance still seems more like celebrity stunt casting than a careful artistic selection.

“Chef” is a celebration of food, family and individual creativity. Favreau’s delightful film is a perfect summer flick and one of the best comedies of the year — it even won the Heineken Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, which could easily signify a future of public and critical success.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 30 print edition. Daniel Lieberson is a staff writer. Email him at film@nyunews.com.

For more WSN coverage of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, visit wsnhighlighter.com.

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