Ernest Hemingway said if nobody dies then you haven’t got a story.
That may be why halfway through the Jon Favreau’s foodie deluxe film “Chef” I was beginning to wonder why I was sitting there.
Despite succulent images of Cuban sandwiches, to-die-for specials off the grill and Sofia Vergara, playing chef Carl Casper’s ex-wife, this good-time vehicle was serving up some stale fare for a plot.
And no dead bodies, except for some presumed rodent under the sink in the old food truck that serves as the literal and metaphorical vehicle for the film.
The truck is what allows Casper to return to his roots as a cook after a devastating review of his culinary skills in Los Angeles and a public fallout with the food critic deep-sixed his high-toned restaurant job in the big city.
Hat in hand, Casper goes to Miami to plead with one of his ex-wife’s ex-husbands for help getting back on his feet.
That ex, played by Robert Downey Jr., comes up with what looks like a cruel joke: An old food truck so pathetic it might be taken for a dumpster on wheels.
It’s nothing but stink, bad paint and rust, which gets you to the elbow grease and bonding part of the show as Casper and his young son use steel wool and polish to buff that would-be disaster into a rolling happy meal.
Pretty soon, it’s all smiles, blinding chrome and fresh paint and Hollywood is at it again, turning hard luck and troubles into big crowds at every stop as father and son, along with all-smiles line-cook Martin (played nicely by John Leguizamo), drive back to L.A. to restore the chef’s pride, if nothing else.
All that’s needed now is some festival-sized crowds at every stop oohing and aahing every time a sandwich is handed to someone and a goofy policeman hassling them about permits, which they have misplaced in the heart-warming chaos of it all.
Hopefully, while the policeman wastes everybody’s time posing for selfies in a skit that doesn’t really work, there is a hungry and forlorn-looking crowd just about to turn away, tugging at your heart strings with their palpable disappointment. Find the permit. Feed the masses.
Everybody happy. Movie mush, but it brings a smile to your face.
However, in this case, the plot doesn’t really thicken much beyond that. “Chef” is wonderfully sincere and carefully understated with scene-salvaging performances all around, which at least keeps the thing afloat. Favreau, formerly of pointed chin, has become a robust charismatic, which he has proven before in his supportive role as Happy Hogan in the Ironman franchise.
You don’t know whether to bemoan the lack of plot twists or applaud it, but Favreau maintains his dignity in every scene. Although on the short side, he’s a hard-luck, self-made gentle giant, who keeps his own counsel and doesn’t blame others for his problems. You want to pat him on the back, bump knuckles or give him a high five.
But you can’t change a tiger’s stripes and this film has to find magic somewhere. That is supplied by Percy, Casper’s young son, played by Emjay Anthony, who tweets up enthusiastic crowds at every stop on the cross-country jaunt. That’s the magic: Social media. It’s believable and hard to believable at the same time: Tweets from a ten-year-old turning Dad into an aw-shucks food truck superstar.
Hmm. I wish it were that simple.
By the time they get to L.A., the crowds are practically legend. They press against the truck shoulder to shoulder with camera angles that suggest the Rolling Stones are in town. Only, it’s, you know … a grilled ham sandwich out of a lunch truck. Ooh and aah and let’s eat.
Without giving away too much, on the positive side, this movie has solid performances all around. The film is sweet and understated and Favreau and Anthony work extremely well together.
This is a good family film and a great date film, but not for a first date. It’s a little too bland for that.