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Wednesday, June 4,2014

Fine dining

Jon Favreau returns to form with cutting comedy

by Allan I. Ross
Who pissed in Jon Favreau’s bisque? The writer/ director/ actor seethes through his role in “Chef” as a man whose life is thrown into turmoil after he abandons his integrity in a critcal career crossroads moment and pays for it. He’s so obsessed with work that he’s destroyed his marriage, he’s lost his girlish figure and he’s become an inattentive father. This guy’s got some serious angst.

In “Chef,” Favreau is Carl Casper, an L.A. nouveau chef who bows to his boss’ pressure and sticks with the old menu one night to appease a food blogger rather than unveil the avant-garde menu he’d created. Casper is then savaged in on online reaming that goes viral, he unintentionally fuels a Twitter war (really) and it all culminates in a cathartic meltdown in the middle of a busy restaurant. Which also goes viral. Meme-checking and reality cooking shows references abound. Yes, this is a distinctly second-decade-of-the-millenium film.

But “Chef” is a perfect metaphor for the filmmaker’s career, as well. After first flashing his creative genius with 1995’s “Swingers,” Favreau moved from indie fare (“Made”) into the mainstream (“Elf,” “Zathura”) before striking gold with “Iron Man,” the first truly great superhero film, a perfect blend of action, intelligent plot and crackling dialogue.

But then the sequel, “Iron Man 2,” was criticized as being too uneven and his sci-fi Western mishmash “Cowboys & Aliens” bombed at the box office. Favreau was ac- cused of playing it safe, of possibly losing his touch. And it seems he took that harsh criticism to heart.

Whatever it is that lit a fire under him, he’s back in form. “Chef ” has a heart, wit and vibrant humor, stocked with engaging characters who talk to each other the way real grownups talk. You know these people — well, less beautiful versions of them, at least.

“Iron Man 2” vets Scarlett Johansson and “Robert Downey Jr. provide support as Casper’s confidante and his waggish frienemy, respectively. Sofia Va-Va-Vergera plays the smoldering-exwith-a-heart-of-gold who goads him to be more hands-on with his son, played by impressive young actor Emjay Anthony. Dustin Hoffman turns in a short, punchy performance that spurs Casper into action. And John Leguiziamo pulls off another masterful sidekick role that would have disappeared by any less of an actor.

And the food — oh, that food. To power through his blues, Casper vents through cooking, and the dishes are incredible looking. It’s hard to describe the allure of watching someone cook, but a scene where Casper prepares a pasta dish from scratch as an act of seduction that was better than any sex scene this film could have had.

An inordinate amount of time is spent on the Twittersphere complete with onscreen animations displaying screen readouts. It’s slightly less boring than watching someone text, but the blue bird flying off with the Tweet was a nice touch.

For realsies though, I spend enough time on my smart phone, it’s not fun to watch people in the movies constantly playing with theirs.

I like to think that “Chef ” is Favreau’s clever way of lashing back at his haters. Flashy L.A. bistro or Cuban sandwich food truck, he seems to be saying, I can still knock your socks off.

“Chef ” plays at NCG Cinemas-Lansing, 2500 Showtime Drive, Lansing Township, inside the Eastwood Towne Center. (517) 316-9100, ncgmovies.com/lansing.

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