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‘Chef’: A funny story, then a long dinner break

Fired restaurant star Carl Casper (JFavreau center) reinvents himself food truck with his s(Emjay Anthony from left) his former kitchen

Fired restaurant star Carl Casper (Jon Favreau, center) reinvents himself in a food truck with his son (Emjay Anthony, from left), his former kitchen lieutenant (John Leguizamo) and his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) in “Chef.” | OPEN ROAD

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‘CHEF’ ★★★

Carl Jon Favreau

Inez Sofia Vergara

Martin John Leguizamo

Tony Bobby Cannavale

Molly Scarlett Johansson

Open Road presents a film written and directed by Jon Favreau. Running time: 115 minutes. Rated R (for language, including some suggestive references). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: June 17, 2014 11:27AM

‘Chef” is a movie that almost stops being a movie about halfway through the movie.

I’ll continue.

In the first half of Jon Favreau’s foodie-friendly travelogue, we get all kinds of story appetizers, many of them familiar from the menus of other films.

Favreau, who wrote and directed, stars as Carl Casper, a gruff bear of a man who looks like he stepped right off the season finale of one of those intense reality-cooking shows where everyone is always screaming and people are having meltdowns because they screwed up a cupcake recipe.

Carl’s arms are covered with tattoos, including a chef’s knife. He loves his staff and he loves his 11-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony), but as is the case with approximately two-thirds of all movies ever made about divorced fathers, young Percy is often stuck waiting in front of the multi-million-dollar home where he lives with his mother (Sofia Vergara), who often has to chastise Carl about being late, inattentive, making promises he doesn’t keep and generally screwing up as a dad.

These days Favreau is celebrated by the Comic-Con crowd as the director of enormous-budgeted spectacles such as the first two “Iron Man” films (and the underrated “Cowboys & Aliens”), but he is a genuine writer of sharp, character-driven pieces who first gained attention with films such as “Swingers” and “Made.” This is a return to that kind of material: funny, quirky and insightful, with a bounty of interesting supporting characters and not a ton of concern about telling a conventional story.

(Seeing as how Favreau first started toying with the idea of “Chef” around the time his “Zathura” bombed, and he continued working on it after “Cowboys & Aliens” was branded a disappointment, and “Chef” is about a man who returns to his roots after getting critically lambasted, we might be looking at some metaphors here, people.)

A decade ago, Carl was celebrated as a rising star on the Miami scene; now he’s the chef at a popular restaurant in L.A., but he’s making the same risotto and the same chocolate lava cake night after night. John Leguizamo’s Martin and Bobby Canavale’s Tony provide comedic spark as Carl’s top lieutenants in the kitchen. Scarlett Johansson is effortlessly spot-on playing the restaurant manager, Molly, one of those beautiful women you see at the entrance to many an eatery like this, smiling warmly at you and asking how you are while somehow letting you know she wouldn’t give you the time of day if she wasn’t standing at a lectern, overseeing a reservation list and handing menus to hostesses who will seat you.

Oliver Platt is Ramsey Michel, a legendary online critic who’s coming to the restaurant for one of those make-or-break reviews. (Platt’s real-life brother is the food critic for New York magazine.) Carl wants to go off the menu and cook something innovative and spectacular, but the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman, brilliant in an extended cameo) tells the chef he can cook whatever he wants — “but I think you should play your greatest hits.”

After Carl reacts to Ramsey’s pan with an epic meltdown that costs him his job, is captured on a dozen smartphone cameras and of course goes viral, “Chef” takes to the road. Carl, his ex-wife Inez and Percy travel to Miami, where they soak in the music scene (Inez’ father is a Cuban singer), scarf down the food, bond as a family and, oh yeah — where Inez’ second husband Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) gives Carl a rundown food truck.

Robert Downey Jr. is onscreen for all of about five minutes in “Chef,” but what Downey does with those five minutes is nothing short of amazing. (They should award undersized Oscars for best cameos, actors who do the most with roles of 10 minutes or less.) Marvin moves about his office like a slightly sedated wild animal. He’s clearly nuts but also fascinating.

So here we are in Miami. Carl puts his kid to work. Leguizamo’s Martin (unconvincingly) quits his job and travels across the country to work on the food truck. Inez flies back to California while Carl, Martin and Percy hit the road, starting in South Beach and traveling through New Orleans and Texas, picking up thousands of followers and friends on social media as their food truck becomes something of a sensation.

And that’s when “Chef” really stops being a movie, even though there’s quite a bit of movie left. If you’re on a diet, this movie will kill. Favreau the writer-director really knows his way around a kitchen, and we get scene after scene after scene of food preparation and consumption. Cuban sandwiches get more character development than some of the humans in this movie.

Emjay Anthony is terrific as young Percy, who patiently teaches his father about Twitter and endures an uncomfortable amount of harsh verbal treatment before finally standing his ground. Favreau makes it tough to like Carl for much of the film. It’s a good portrayal of a man who’s self-consumed, but I’m not sure I believe the last-minute attempts to convince us Carl has turned a corner. “Chef” is a colorful, great-looking film, with an infectious soundtrack. By the time it remembers it’s a movie and not a narrative-free montage, we get two late plot developments I didn’t buy.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. This is all about the characters, the food and the music.

Three stars. And I’ll bet Ramsey Michel would say I was too soft.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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