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Movie review: ‘Chef’

Chef

* * * * 

Director: Jon Favreau

Cast: Jon Favreau, Scarlett Johannson, Robert Downey Jr.

Rated: R (strong language, including suggestive references)

Running time: 115 min.


Posted 4:00pm on Thursday, May. 15, 2014

Jon Favreau is one of Hollywood’s most well-liked big-budget director-producers. Having the “Iron Man” films on the résumé will certainly do that. Even an expensive misstep like Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t seem to have held him back.

Yet Favreau’s roots aren’t in the multiplex. He first came to the world’s attention by penning and starring in the finger-snapping 1996 indie comedy Swingers, a movie that cost just $200,000, a sum that probably wouldn’t cover Iron Man’s catering costs.

Favreau returns to those early days in Chef, a sweetly satisfying, character-driven comedy about the world of food with only one special effect: anyone seeing this film on an empty stomach will be ravenous by the time it’s over. That it also happens to have a kitchen full of Favreau’s famous friends — Robert Downey Jr., Sofia Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson — doesn’t make it feel any less of a departure from the director’s recent work.

Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a once renowned Los Angeles chef who has fallen into a midlife rut. He’s divorced from his wife (Vergara), doesn’t see enough of his son (Emjay Anthony), and is bored with his work. His staff — including the other cooks (John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale) and hostess (Johansson) — also feel his frustration. But the restaurant’s owner (Hoffman) doesn’t want to rock the culinary boat. Why mess with success?

In walks leading restaurant critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), whose views on Casper’s cooking spark a Twitter war between the two. Ultimately, Casper finds himself out on the street, and what’s a chef with time on his hands to do? Get a food truck, of course.

Sure, Chef doesn’t go to any unexpected emotional places. Predictably, the truck helps Casper get his mojo back as a chef and a dad. It’s the journey that’s important here and that becomes literal when Casper, his son, and cooks take the truck on the road from Miami to New Orleans, Austin (where barbecue king Aaron Franklin and singer-guitarist Gary Clark Jr. make appearances), and Los Angeles. While the movie takes too long to get to this point, it’s here where all the ingredients come together.

Adding spice to it all is a stellar soundtrack that pops with vintage R&B, reggae and Caribbean grooves. The music is almost as delicious as the meals.

Chef is lightweight, and could be seen as just a blatant attempt to cash in on the whole food-truck phenomenon, but it’s so engaging that it really doesn’t matter. Favreau — who brought on food-truck pioneer Roy Choi as a technical adviser to make sure he got things right — really just seems interested in telling a simple, amusing story about real-world people again.

Welcome back, Jon.

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