Let's take a quick look at Jon Favreau's career: he strikes big by writing and starring the straight-white-dude anthem, Swingers, from which he moves on to pick up several starring roles and featured guest appearances on TV. He hits massive financial success with Elf in 2003, evens out with Zathura two years later and begins a generation of blockbuster filmmaking with Iron Man in 2008. He makes another Iron Man and then he makes the ultra-stupid Cowboys & Aliens, which tanks critically and performs indifferently at the box office. We arrive at Chef.
Regardless of critical or financial success, all filmmakers take a journey that involves ups and downs. Looking over Favreau's career, he's fortunate to have hit mostly ups; even his one major down (Cowboys) isn't even that big of a deal. And yet, Chef acts as such an obvious, thudding metaphor for Favreau's alleged artistic revival that you'd think he were Michael Cimino, who never rose from the ashes created by the debacle of Heaven's Gate. Favreau went on to direct the Jungle Book remake, a crappy movie that made a gazillion dollars (seriously, almost a billion) and got great reviews. So, excuse me if I don't have a ton of sympathy for the guy.
All of that extra-textual griping aside, Chef is a big ol' bowl of macaroni and cheese. It's sunny, has tons of personality and beautiful people you love to look at. It's about an executive chef, Carl (Favreau, of course), who quits his steady paycheck at a fancy restaurant to pursue a pipe dream of self-governance as a food truck chef. He enlists the help of his Internet-savvy son and his former line cook (John Leguizamo) as they trek from Miami back to their hometown of Los Angeles, where they hope they will be able to make it on their own. Carl also juggles his understanding ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), supportive not-girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) and the specter of a food critic (Oliver Platt), whose tough words haunt him.
Looking at the cast—especially the women—you can start to see why this movie feels like an aggressive exercise in wish fulfillment. It's a story about giving up banal comfort in lieu of pursuing your dreams and throwing caution to the wind. It's an inspiring story, but it's hard for it not to feel hollow if you think about it for little more than a second. It feels great going down, though. Favreau shoots the food scenes the way the Food Network wishes it could, and there are a lot of food scenes. The movie also acts as a travelogue of the most sun-blasted and foodie-friendly corners of America, landing in New Orleans and Austin en route to its destination. The only people who don't appreciate food are the nebulous, offscreen hoi polloi who love the trite menu Carl turns out at his old job. Compare that to the beautiful crowds comprised almost entirely of young people who show up when Carl's son Twitter-engineers a veritable flash mob wherever the truck goes.
Favreau wants to have his lava cake and eat it, too. He slipped up once in his career and somehow generated so much existential angst that he couldn't help but make a movie about it. Either that, or he wanted an excuse to have delicious comfort around the clock, rather than the gourmet spread available to you when you're members of multiple Hollywood guilds at the same time. Favreau is reminiscent of Woody Allen in this sense: his concept of hardship is so foreign to anyone with a normal life that it becomes impossible to empathize with them. Unlike Allen, however, Favreau's actually bothered to make an entertaining movie. If he were really committed to his artistic vision, Favreau would make a movie where his characters stare at a potato until the sun burns out, like Bela Tarr (see also: The Turin Horse).