The challenge with reviewing a film like Daniel Cohen’s “Le Chef” is avoiding disparaging culinary puns. Be that as it may, compared with other outstanding films in the increasingly popular food preparation genre (my favorites are still the classics: “Ratatouille,” “Big Night,” . . . ) this new movie from France is about as exciting as the PBJ and flat diet soda I just had for lunch. In one telling scene, a character says to the nerdy hero Jacky (Michaël Youn), “You don’t create. You copy.” Cohen copies, too, and badly.
He draws on the usual ingredients. Jacky, a perfectionist aspiring chef, can’t hold a job because he won’t abide ignorant diners or tacky employers — he’d rather storm out of the kitchen and insult a patron for choosing the wrong wine. But his beautiful, nagging (because a generous helping of good old French misogyny is always called for), pregnant girlfriend, Béatrice (Raphaëlle Agogué), has to quit her job because she’s almost full term, so Jacky condescends to painting windows at a giant rest home (add a dash of cute codger humor) to pay the bills. On the sly, though, he offers the kitchen staff tips on improving the place’s bland menu.
Meanwhile, culinary icon Alexandre Lagarde (Jean Reno) has his own problems. Stanislas (Julien Boisselier), the callow son of Lagarde’s now retired former partner, wants to cut quality, increase profits, and update the place’s image (the menu, he points out, is from the last century). When Lagarde balks, Stanislas tries to replace him with a molecular gastronome who prepares dishes such as “phosphorescent radish mousse.”
At this point you can detect a robust tang of satire, a soupçon of mockery at the expense of pointy-headed poseurs and pseudo-intellectuals. This flavor is blended with another pinch of Gallic misogyny in the form of Lagarde’s spoiled, selfish daughter (Salomé Stévenin), who wants Daddy to drop everything and accompany her when she goes to defend her thesis on Russian Fantastic Literature and its Effect on the 19th-Century Novel. What an egghead!
However, in one of many serendipitous coincidences (Paris is, after all, just another small town), Lagarde’s former partner is a resident at the rest home where Jacky works. He has tasted one of Jacky’s sublime bisques, and brings the veteran chef and the newcomer together. So, voila! Problems solved for both, with half the movie still to go.
Consider it a second helping when Cohen fills the remaining scenes with half-baked gags and genially offensive ethnic humor. Reno and Youn have a kind of chemistry together, but it is of the molecular gastronomic variety, resembling such concoctions as “liquid nitrogen champagne” and “virtual calamari.” For their piece de resistance, the two dress up as a Japanese couple to spy on a competitor’s restaurant, and not since Mickey Rooney played Mr. Yunioshi, the neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” have there been such overcooked Asian caricatures on the screen.
Usually a French comedy such as this requires some crude modifications before a studio like Touchstone can remake it for American audiences. In this case, though, they just need to lose the subtitles and dub in the voices of actors like Rob Schneider or Adam Sandler. Until then, bon appetit!