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Trailer: Chef

A chef who loses his restaurant job starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise, while piecing back together his estranged family.

PT2M38S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-37w3z 620 349

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Reader rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (33 votes)

Jon Favreau is responsible for one of independent American filmmaking's classic scenes. It's in Swingers (1996), the comedy which proved to be his big breakthrough. He's nervously telephoning a girl he's just met to ask her for a date. When she's not there, he starts to leave her a message and finds that he can't stop talking. By the time the tape has run out, he's talked himself, and her, out of the whole idea.

How times have changed. In his new comedy, Chef, he's fancied by both Scarlett Johansson and the Colombian bombshell Sofia Vergara. Admittedly, he has a lot more clout these days. Chef is his first independent movie in a long time. He's been busy directing and producing a string of blockbusters, among them The Avengers and the Iron Man series.

Arriving this week: Emjay Anthony and Jon Favreau in Chef.

Emjay Anthony and Jon Favreau enjoy the view from the taco truck in Chef. Photo: Supplied

Robert Downey jnr, alias Iron Man, has a very funny cameo here. It plays as if partly improvised – something encouraged on a Favreau set, it seems. As a writer, Favreau has never been lost for words (as the Swingers scene demonstrates so eloquently) but his best films have the kind of antic, freewheeling air that speaks of a cast who have been licensed to enjoy themselves.

The chef is Favreau's Carl Casper, a big, bearish character with a quick temper who's famous in Los Angeles' restaurant world without quite being a celebrity chef. If he were, he'd be au fait with the pitfalls of social media and he wouldn't get himself into the fix that fires up the plot.

The city's foremost food critic (Oliver Platt) is coming to dinner and Casper has devised a new menu, but his boss – an implacable Dustin Hoffman – insists he stick to his old favourites. As a result, his performance is shredded and in response, he employs his new Twitter account, sending off with an abusive tweet meant to be read by the critic alone. Instead, it's received by the critic's hundreds of thousands of followers and goes viral. A domino effect is generated and an outraged Casper quits his restaurant job and goes off to Florida to listen to some Latin music and consider his future. With a little help from family and friends, he finally decides that he will go on the road with his own food truck.

It's an odyssey that takes us back to Los Angeles via Louisiana and Texas and interwoven with it are Casper's efforts to re-connect with his young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony) and fondly indulgent wife, Inez (Vergara), from whom he's separated.

I won't dwell on Favreau's shortcomings as a romantic lead, although it would be all too easy. The key to his appeal is supposed to lie in his job. Judging from the loving close-ups of him slicing, chopping, poaching and sauteing, we're being asked to believe that the chef has replaced the painter on screen as the creator du jour. Johansson is certainly seduced by this theory. Cast as the restaurant's maitre d', she always seems ready for a late-night snack.

But, fortunately for us and the film, it's Casper's relationship with Percy that keeps the plot bubbling along. Unlike the romantic interludes, these scenes resonate with a persuasive sense of reality. Percy is suffering a malaise familiar to children whose parents have broken up. He's weary of specially arranged outings with his father. He wants only to sit and talk to him or watch him cook. So the chance to become his apprentice, working alongside him in the food truck, is his version of heaven.

Beyond that, little happens. But you become so thoroughly steeped in Casper's day-to-day routine that there are few dull spots. As his sous chefs, John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale both help to keep the banter flowing and the whole thing rolls along with an unaffected and easygoing good humour.

Foodies may find quite a bit to carp at. Once we go on the road, the deep fryer comes out and the aesthetics of life in the kitchen are abandoned in the rush to get the orders out. And it's probably a good thing. In food films, pretentiousness is an ever-present danger. In this case, there's no fear at all.