Thankfully, there are a couple of alternatives coming out this weekend that are a refreshing change from the usual summer shoot-‘em-ups, and which instead focus on normal people with relatable lives dealing with their problems in funny fashion. “Chef” is a passion project for Jon Favreau, who exploded onto movie screens in 1996 as the writer and co-star of “Swingers” before fading back into supporting roles and directing movies ranging from “Elf” to the first two “Iron Man” movies.
But when he was stung by mediocre reviews and a terribly organized shoot for “Iron Man 2,” Favreau jumped off the blockbuster merry-go-round and decided to write and star in his own material again. He plays Carl, a chef who was once headed for stardom due to his inventive cuisine until the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood forced him to take a high-paying job at a restaurant that has been using the same menu for a decade.
Now divorced and struggling to find time for his young son amid his frenzied schedule, Carl suddenly finds his life becoming a lot more interesting when he sends an insulting Tweet back to a restaurant critic who wrote an extremely disparaging review. Unfamiliar with Twitter, Carl thinks that the message will only be seen by the critic – yet he suddenly learns that the whole Twitter universe seems to have read his comment after waking up to find he’s gained over 25,000 Twitter followers in one night.
After confronting the critic in person at his table upon a return visit, Carl is fired by his hotheaded boss (Dustin Hoffman). But with a dozen customers’ cameras capturing that argument and posting it online, he finds that he suddenly has more than 20,000 followers and a publicist willing to help him maximize his potential as the next “Hell’s Kitchen”-style cooking-show host. But Carl has a different idea: to take over an abandoned food truck, spiff it up and with his best friends (including a terrific trio of John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale and Scarlett Johannsen) from the old restaurant, create his dream establishment on wheels.
“Chef” is the definition of a character-driven comedy, relying on the charm of well-written characters and witty dialogue rather than a complex plot to carry the day. Its’ one weak spot is that Favreau is a bit too slow and indulgent in his pacing at times, and allows the admittedly sensuous cooking sequences to drag on a touch too long. It also should strike home with plenty of people these days who are struggling to find meaning in their work and a deeper purpose in their lives, but while it’s both funny and inspiring, steer clear if your mom can’t handle a rather large amount of F words and some sex-related banter that's funny, yet a bit crude.
There’s no such language to be worried about in the other new comedy of the weekend, “Mom’s Night Out.” Starring “Grey’s Anatomy” regular Sarah Drew as a comically overwhelmed suburban mom whose husband (Sean Astin) is always off on a business trip and leaving her with their out of control kids, “Mom’s” quickly finds the funny in daily life while making Allyson a sympathetic lead.
When Allyson finally hatches a plan for a mom’s night out with her best friend Izzy (Logan White) and their preacher’s wife (Patricia Heaton), they leave their comically terrified husbands in charge of the kids for the evening. What could go wrong? Everything does, as Allyson has messed up their reservation and winds up getting the trio caught up in a bowling alley with an out of control DJ and their husbands are utterly ill-equipped to handle anything, making each small problem a comic disaster.
Things get even crazier when the three amigas run into a single mom from their church who thinks that her boyfriend is watching her baby. In reality, he’s two-timing her with another date after leaving their infant with a friend who runs a tattoo parlor – and suddenly the race is on to find the baby, who keeps going missing just moments ahead of the chasing crowd that now includes everyone from Bible thumpers to thuggish bikers.
“Mom’s Night Out” plays like an “Adventures in Babysitting” for adults, recalling the comically anarchic spirit of that late-‘80s teen favorite. But in her feature-film debut, writer Andrea Nasfell has pulled off a rarity in creating a fast-paced, broad comedy that is funny without relying on gross-out humor to get its laughs and which is most relatable to parents while still being accessible and wild enough for kids’ shorter attention spans.
The cast is filled with mostly fresh faces and TV stars who are looking to make the big step up into movies, and the lead trio of Drew, Heaton and Wall definitely hit their comic targets. One interesting sidenote to the film is that the characters are church-going Christians who urge each other to pray in a couple of the more quiet and grounded scenes, which could have left audiences feeling like they were trapped watching an evangelical recruitment video.
Yet “Mom’s Night Out” is the first mainstream comedy trying to bridge what could become an enormous lucrative gap in society: that of millions of churchgoers who want to see movies but are leery of being offended, and secular moviegoers who are afraid of any movie that appears to be forcing a religion (mainly Christianity) down their throats. The directors, known as the Erwin brothers (who did the touching pro-life drama "October Baby" a couple of years back), manage to handle balance quite easily, and create a night out that will make for an entertaining outing – day or night - with mom this weekend and for broader families in the weeks to come.
Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.