Jon Favreau is not yet 50 but it seems an age since he first broke out, alongside a rake-thin Vince Vaughn, in 1996’s fast-talking Swingers. Since then some of his directorial efforts (Iron Man, Elf) have been better received than others (Iron Man 2, Cowboys and Aliens) but a consistent, good-natured frivolity runs through his work behind the camera. In front of it he was most recently seen in the all-conquering The Wolf of Wall Street, as Jordan Belfort’s doomsaying lawyer, Manny Riskin.
Chef is a much more intimate and personal film than the CGI-driven blockbusters Favreau often finds himself helming (he was an executive producer on The Avengers and its forthcoming sequel, Age of Ultron). The director plays Carl Casper, a once-exciting chef who sleepwalked into safe mediocrity due to the financial strictures demanded by his restaurant’s owner, gruffly played by Dustin Hoffman. When an influential food blogger (Oliver Platt) takes rather unkindly to Carl’s fare, he ignores the sage advice of his sharp-tongued line cook Martin, (John Leguizamo) and his husky hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson) and strikes back through social media. Needless to say it doesn’t end well and Carl finds himself a chef without a kitchen, struggling to hold onto his young son, pushed away by the demands of his father’s profession. The end result is a road trip through the USA, which sees Carl go back to basics and fall in love with cooking again, while finally finding time to give his son the attention he deserves.
If that all sounds fairly straightforward, predictable, and a little clichéd: well, it is. However, refreshingly, in the case of Chef, that is nothing like a bad thing. This is a simple story, told well, and being a Favreau film, it benefits from a sprinkling of glitter from its supporting cast: Johansson’s signature smoulder is well employed, Sofia Vergara is a delight as Carl’s well-meaning ex-wife, Leguizamo brings his potty-mouthed, rascally charisma to the food truck, and Robert Downey Jr. does his best to steal the film as Carl’s would-be benefactor, Marvin, with a bizarre negotiation in his LA office. Favreau himself walks a fine line between neurosis, shlubbiness, vulnerability and charm; unlike in Swingers, which had me quickly taking against his whinging, voicemail-abusing protagonist, Carl is a nice man who’s lost his way, and I want him to find it.
Finally I have to mention the two biggest stars of the film, which elevate it from a pleasant curiosity to a real treat: the food, and the music. There’s no point trying to avoid the phrase ‘food porn’ in this review. Melting cheese, tantalisingly slow-cooked meat and sizzling garlic get the same treatment that young women and explosions do in Michael Bay films; in fact the only danger is that you might leave the screen when the lust for grilled cheese overwhelms you. Then there’s the music. Carl is keen on Cuban cuisine, and instead of a low-budget score, Favreau has filled the airwaves with thick brass and latin percussion. It works. It’s not a film that you’ll have to spend too long thinking about, and its twists and turns unfold exactly as you expect them to – in fact it could easily finish five minutes before it does, although there’s a nice post-credits clip – but it’s a tasty morsel that will get your cinematic summer off to a feel-good start.