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Bradley Cooper stars as a bad-boy chef out for redemption (and a third Michelin star) in John Wells’ drama.
By Jon Frosch
Burnt may be about haute cuisine, but the movie is fast food all the way.
Culinary metaphors aside, John Wells’ entry in the feel-good foodie film subgenre is neither as cloying as last year’s The Hundred-Foot Journey (featuring Helen Mirren in full French drag) nor as scruffily likeable as Jon Favreau’s Chef. Glib, sloppy, and shamelessly clichéd, it’s a middling vehicle for its charismatic leading man, Bradley Cooper, who sweats and swears up a storm as a disgraced chef orchestrating a comeback. Cooper can do this kind of arrogant-but-irresistible golden boy shtick in his sleep, but that doesn’t make it any less pleasurable to watch. Flashing his baby blues and a fiery temper, the actor gives a fully engaged performance that almost makes us want to forgive the movie’s laziness. Almost.
Burnt opens with Adam Jones (Cooper) moving from New Orleans to London, where he plots his return to the world of big white plates and tiny, artfully assembled piles of food. Once a revered, two-Michelin-starred chef in Paris, Jones suffered a spectacular drug- and alcohol-fueled fall from grace. Now he’s back on the old continent, and on the hunt for a new kitchen in which to pursue that elusive third star.
Complicating his quest is the fact that, well, he’s kind of an asshole. Via some clunky expository dialogue, Burnt fills us in on Adam’s past sins, which include planting rats in his friend/rival Michel’s restaurant and then calling the health department. Thanks to our protagonist’s powers of persuasion — who could resist that million-dollar smile? — Michel (Omar Sy) forgives Adam and agrees to work for him when he lands a gig as head chef at a fancy joint run by another old frenemy, Tony (a fine Daniel Bruhl).
Also recruited to toil under Adam in his new kitchen is talented sous-chef Helene (Sienna Miller). Burnt gives Helene multiple ear piercings and a hipsterish undercut to, you know, signify her spunk and independent spirit; the movie also makes her a single mom so that she’s a viable love interest for Adam. Miller is terrific — unfussy, charming, all coiled energy in the cooking scenes — and it’s nice to hear her native accent after her back-to-back Middle American wives in Foxcatcher and American Sniper (in which she costarred with Cooper). She and Cooper spark off one another nicely here, their combativeness carrying a charge of hostility more compelling than the coy romantic tension studio movies usually feed us when two attractive performers share the screen.
Alas, Burnt being a pure Hollywood product, Helene is destined to fall for Adam — again, that million-dollar smile — and soon enough, her spiky resistance to his bullying has transformed into essentially uncomplicated affection and attraction. At least she’s allowed a bit of lucidity; “It’s a stupid idea,” Helene whispers as they lean in for their first kiss, and you may feel like shouting your agreement.
Helene isn’t the only one whose distaste for Adam gives way to ardent devotion. The screenplay by Steven Knight (who also penned The Hundred-Foot Journey) indeed settles into a tiresome pattern of people telling Adam off and then marveling at his genius a few scenes later. We get it — he’s at once loved and loathed, the Steve Jobs of the culinary world. But Knight is no Aaron Sorkin, and while there are a handful of clever lines (of a rival’s sterile-looking restaurant, Adam says: “It’s the perfect place to stone an infidel!”), there’s also a surfeit of platitudinous groaners (“The kitchen is the only place I’ve ever felt I belonged,” Adam confides to Helene, who counsels: “You can’t do it alone — no one can.”)
Unsurprisingly, Burnt is most alive in the workplace, where Wells — aided by dp Adriano Goldman and a number of trained chefs cast as extras — capably conjures the chaos, pressure, noise, and heat of a world-class kitchen. Marcus Wareing and Mario Batali are listed as “consultants,” and Cooper and Miller look credible chopping, tasting and stirring with athletic intensity. But at this point, feverish montages showing dainty slabs of pink lamb and alabaster turbot being drizzled with sauce, sprinkled with spice or poked for firmness are nothing new; it would have been nice to see someone in Burnt preparing something for more than five seconds at a time.
The movie’s climax comes when Adam and his staff scramble to send out two perfect dishes to a pair of diners they believe are Michelin judges. The scene is inevitably tense, as Cooper hovers over the plates like a nervous parent tending to a newborn. What’s missing, though, is a sense of genuine connection between chef and food. There’s nothing approaching the fetishistic reverence with which the brothers played by Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub greet the timpano in Big Night (a film Burnt cribs from in one scene), or the fiercely contained emotion that the titular French cook in Babette’s Feast pours into her multi-course extravaganza, to cite two examples. Of course, food culture has changed since those movies came out. But beyond Adam’s exacting standards and barely explained contempt for the latest poaching techniques, we never grasp his identity as a chef, let alone what makes him the visionary everyone keeps going on about.
Wells is a competent if not very imaginative craftsman, though his work here feels choppier and more strenuously spliced together than in his previous big-screen directorial efforts (2010’s The Company Men and 2013’s August: Osage County). Blink and you’ll miss Uma Thurman as a snooty restaurant critic, and a poorly served Alicia Vikander has only a few disposable scenes as Adam’s ex. Meanwhile, following her thankless role in A Walk in the Woods, Emma Thompson appears as another concerned woman catering to a difficult man; she plays Adam’s doctor.
Rob Simonsen’s score is restrained, and while the arc of Adam’s redemption tale is yawningly familiar, the film doesn’t pluck too insistently at your heartstrings. But that’s damning with faint praise. Burnt isn’t burnt; on the contrary, it’s — forgive me — half-baked.
Production companies: Shiny Penny Productions, 3 Arts Entertainment, Battle Mountain Films
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Bruhl, Riccardo Scamarcio, Sam Keeley, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Rhys, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson, Lily James, Sarah Greene
Director: John Wells
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Story: Michael Kalesniko
Producers: Stacey Sher, Erwin Stoff, John Wells, Caroline Hewitt
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Shamberg, Kris Thykier, David Glasser, Caroline Rudnick Polstein, Dylan Sellers, Negeen Yazdi
Editor: Nick Moore
Director of photography: Adriano Goldman
Costume designer: Lyn Elizabeth Paolo
Production designer: David Gropman
Casting by Nina Gold
Rated R, 100 min.