Demented Excess and More in Chef , Neighbors , and Palo Alto

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Jon Favreau's new comedy, a sort of food-porn road trip, is as light as a soufflé but solid as a plate of ribs. (No more food similes, promise.) The movie is ambling and digressive, but it's consistently funny, and at several points—as when Robert Downey Jr. glides in for a five-minute spin and just kills it—it's hilarious.

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Carl Casper (Favreau) was once a bright young star on the L.A. food scene. Now he's stuck in a stuffy old-school restaurant, chained to a cliché menu–snoozy scallops, stodgy French onion soup—imposed by the eatery's owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman). When word arrives one day that an influential food blogger named Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) will be coming in that night, Carl decides to assemble a more adventurous bill of fare to show what he can really do. Riva forbids it, though, ordering his chef to stick with the "greatest hits." Michel arrives, sneers at the food, and posts a withering review, which goes viral on Twitter. Carl has no idea what Twitter is.

With Chef, Favreau appears to be taking a time-out in his blockbuster career (he directed the first two Iron Man

movies and, alas, the sneered-at sci-fi misfire Cowboys & Aliens) in order to return to his roots in indie films like

Swingers and Made. Writing and directing again, he has devised a colorful story and populated it with a top cast, including Iron Man stars Downey and Scarlett Johansson (as the restaurant's front-room manager Molly), John Leguizamo (in one of his giddiest performances, as Carl's motor-mouth line cook Martin), and Emjay Anthony, who plays Carl's 10-year-old son Percy with a precocious restraint that's only minimally reliant on kid-actor cuteness.

The movie opens with a flurry of vegetable-chopping and pig-sectioning, and great-looking food is front-and-center throughout the rest of the film, from carne asada to croque monsieur. Carl's Cuban ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) wants him to stop working for other people and get his own gourmet food truck. Carl resists this down-market idea, but on a trip to Miami, where Carl got his start, he gives in when Inez' other ex-husband (Downey) agrees to provide the truck. This vehicle turns out to be a wreck, and Favreau spends a little too much time showing us how Carl, assisted by Percy and Martin, whips it into shape.

But the movie takes off along with Carl and company when they hit the road, heading back to L.A., but with stopovers in New Orleans and Austin. Soon we're treated to compact show-and-tells about beignet-making at the Café du Monde and brisket-smoking at the celebrated Franklin Barbecue. (Unfortunately, there's also a poky blues-band bar scene that could have been cut with no loss to the film.) But the father-son story at the heart of the picture is never eclipsed by all the great eats on display. Carl, an affectionate but distracted father, is finally bonding with his son in the food world Carl loves, and Percy—a grill-man in the making—is happily chronicling their cross-country trip with a steady stream of online photo and Vine postings.

Favreau is admirably uninterested in taking cheap shots at his more prickly characters. Restaurant owner Riva may be a culinary stick in the mud, but he's running a business; and as Carl tells Molly, while beef cheeks may be a better dish than tired old ahi tuna, regular people—the customers on whom Riva depends—just don't want it. Platt's food critic is depicted with similar nuance—his Ramsey Michel isn't just a snotty destroyer, he's a food-loving pro who's honestly affronted by unimaginative grub. (Platt's performance is no doubt informed by the fact that his brother, Adam Platt, is the well-known food critic of New York

magazine.) But Favreau may be scoring a point of his own against critics in general with a fiery confrontation in which Carl berates Michel for what he feels was his unnecessarily cruel review: "It

hurts!" Carl cries.

Chef is sunny and cheerful, and it motors along on a lively score of Latin dance tracks and Crescent City funk. The movie doesn't go out of its way to win your heart, but by the end—the happy end, of course—it has.

Neighbors

Universal PicturesUniversal PicturesThe setup, from which all else naturally flows: Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne), happily married but restless, are ensconced in their new house, with a new baby, when a college fraternity moves in next door. And not just any fraternity–back in the mists of collegiate ridiculousness, Delta Psi Beta was the frat that invented the toga party! Or so legend has it. Anyway, nightly eruptions of thunderous debauchery soon begin, and Mac and Kelly are steamed. They're grownups—they like brunch, they like hand-soap dispensers. They need sleep, and so does their tot. But they're also conflicted: as one-time party animals themselves, they don't want to be seen as pathetic scolding oldies. So how to fight back?

In the annals of arrested-development movies, Neighbors

manages something at least a little bit new. The frat bros on hand here provide all the usual gross-a-rama–dick jokes, dildo gags, and so forth, much of it drunken, some of it wonderfully disgusting (if anything can still be said to be so). But the focus is on Mac and Kelly. They may still smoke the occasional joint, but their full-tilt 'shroom years are quickly receding, and by the end of the picture, they realize they're okay with that.

Director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall,

The Five-Year Engagement) skillfully interweaves the stupid and the semi-serious, and Seth Rogen knows the drill, of course—he virtually invented it. But the movie has two surprises. The first is Rose Byrne, whose Kelly is just as reluctant as her husband to leave their youthful high times behind, and who can lapse back into vintage nuttery as quickly as he can. Byrne gets a lot of comedy time here—including a completely unhinged breast-milking scene—and she paces Rogen (who's pretty great, as usual) every step of the way.

The movie's other surprise—a big one, to me—is Zac Efron, who plays fraternity president Teddy Sanders. Teddy is a man for whom the way of the party is a sacred obligation—he can't conceive of a grownup life beyond college. Efron, with his fiercely chiseled abs and lasery blue eyes, is absurdly hunky to begin with; but here he uses his familiar physical assets to project a near-demonic hedonism that's sometimes hysterical. He's up for anything (witness his pee-duel with Rogen) and he has exhilarating comic timing (his rap battle on the theme of "bros before hos" is priceless). He's an actor headed in a new direction, and he appears to be loving it.

Amid all the demented excess on view (the frat even has a disco ball in its backyard party garden), there's strong comedy support by Lisa Kudrow, as the seen-it-all dean of the college, and Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project), as Mac's lunky best bud. Stoller also walks in some familiar faces (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Andy Samberg) just to remind us what party we're at, and pop-culture references flow like spilled beer (J.J. Abrams and Kevin James are among the many shoutouts, and the big bash to which everyone comes dressed as a Robert De Niro character is really inspired). The frat-boy festivities may come to an end—as they must, right?—but the best parts rage on in your head.

Palo Alto

TribecaTribecaPalo Alto

takes us back to the familiar cinematic precinct of teenage wasteland, where we find that little has changed: the kids still fritter away their abundant free time chugging booze, smoking pot, and hooking up, while the grownups make themselves scarce. Since the genre dates back at least to the 1950s, it's fair to wonder whether another trudge through this well-worn terrain is really necessary. But Gia Coppola's movie has a dreamy look and a couple of striking performances, so the answer, in this case, is yes.

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Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available.

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