Jon Favreau, director of the first two Iron Man installments, kid fantasy Zathura and would-be blockbuster Cowboys and Aliens, returns with a movie that’s small only insofar as that word distinguishes it from effects-driven films. Measured by passion, it’s very big. To the film critic, it may not be very subtle. But it may well be Favreau's best yet.
The opening images of meals being prepared in a restaurant kitchen provide a kinetic, stimulating introduction to Carl Casper (Favreau), a chef dedicated to his art and who leads a staff that worships him.
Such is his dedication, it’s not surprising that we find out Carl is also a divorced father struggling to spend quality time with his son, who lives with his mother, Carl’s doting ex (Sofia Vergara). Favreau uses their scenes together to build tension between the son’s longing to spend more time with his dad, and Carl’s obsession with working in the kitchen, the one place he feels valuable. Carl doesn’t see a way to merge a professional role in which he excels with his role as dad, which he understands he’s not very good at.
He's also not very good at checking his instincts and letting them simmer a while before acting, a trait that has life-changing and quite funny ramifications whenever Carl butts heads with his restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) and when he enters a flame war on Twitter with a famous food critic (Oliver Platt). In one scene, Platt says everything with his facial expressions as he reviews a meal he presumes has been prepared by Carl.
As Carl’s zeal for creating great-tasting fare (and earning money) incorporates a food truck, the movie finds him taking a cross-country trip with his son (Emjay Anthony) as well as his loyal sous chef (John Leguizamo). Along the way, Favreau makes us feel like passengers on a breezy, invigorating journey that blends vibrant, heralding social media (Twitter is heavily promoted), a father and son getting to know one another, the power of music to inspire and, of course, food. Lots of delicious-looking food. From the kitchen to his studio apartment to his rolling eatery, Carl assembles mouthwatering little masterpieces.
Favreau also wrote the script, and — aside from a few structural aspects that may stretch credulity — it's funny and sincere. The relationship between Carl and his son is particularly refreshing for the way it allows them to be candid with one another, and letting that candor develop their relationship. Yes, this smells like a vanity project of sorts, a veiled attempt by Favreau to strike back at movie critics (and maybe not just those critical of his work). So what? It's not as if bloated cynicism and gratuitous cruelty don't need a good skewering now and then, and if this leisurely film must wear the feel-good label, at least it earns it.