Let’s agree to refrain from making any cooking puns in this review of Burnt. Come on – we’re better than that!
It’s hard not to feel a tad burned by Burnt, a movie which delivers delicious appetizers without following them up with an even adequate main course.
Were you even listening to what I just said? No cooking jokes! I’m watching you, buddy. You may continue.
The DVD for Burnt comes with a 24-minute featurette (“In the Kitchen with Bradley Cooper”) which is arguably more interesting than the actual movie. You are reminded that the director, John Wells, has a rich history of providing the definitive cinematic depictions of hyper-specific workplaces, with his handheld cameras/medical jargon on ER and “walk-and-talk” steadicam sequences/Aaron Sorkin dialogue on The West Wing. You are told by an overly enthusiastic producer that Burnt is supposed to be like the Magnificent Seven of cooking movies, with one central figure (Cooper) gathering together a band of all-star misfits to staff his kitchen. Bradley Cooper tells us that due to his food-obsessed Italian upbringing he actually wanted to become a chef, going so far as to work in the kitchen of a high-scale restaurant while still a teenager.
Cooper also admits that when he made Burnt it was after American Sniper but before his Tony-winning turn in the Broadway revival of The Elephant Man. Those were two life-changing roles. Burnt was just supposed to be an in-between project; a challenging, but fun opportunity to live out his childhood dream. However, he now regards it as being equally life-changing.
If you take him at his word, it’s a reminder that even a relative box office bomb like Burnt can still mean the world to the people who made it.
Cooper stars as Adam Jones, a remarkably arrogant and domineering American chef who once commanded a two-star restaurant in Paris before imploding due to drink, sex and general self-destructive behavior. It’s several years later now, and he’s in London, mending fences with some of his old crew and getting back into the game. He talks his way into a new restaurant owned by an old ally played by Daniel Bruhl with promises of turning it into a three-star establishment. Adam’s re-emergence directly threatens an old colleague (played by Matthew Rhys) who now runs his own solid, if unspectacular London eatery.
As anyone who’s seen The Hundred-Foot Journey (which shares a screenwriter – Steven Knight – with Burnt) probably remembers, the haute cuisine market is ruled over by the Michelin Guide, which rates high level restaurants from around the world on a zero-to-three star scale. One single star in either direction can dramatically alter the financial viability of any restaurant.
At the start of Burnt, Jones regards himself as being a mere two-star chef, and by the end of the story he aims to have earned that third star. To get there, he’ll have to learn how to operate as a team with his gathered chefs instead of giving into his natural impulse to play the part of the tortured genius who can’t tolerate the lesser talents around him.
In other words: Mean guy yells at people a lot, and then remembers how to use his inside voice.
Don’t get me wrong. Cooper is fantastic in the part. As BluRay.com put it, “His ability to transmit his ferocious approach in the kitchen, to feel completely natural within its operations, and demonstrate an encyclopedic yet nuanced and personal approach to food, its preparation, and its presentation is beyond reproach.”
As intentionally unlikable as Adam is meant to be at first, Cooper makes him a compelling on-screen presence, particularly during the early section of the story when he is recruiting his team. The standouts in the group include an underestimated sous chef just trying to make ends meet for her young daughter (Sienna Miller), a young worker at a trendy pop-up London sandwich shop (Sam Keely) and one of Adam’s former associates from Paris who claims to have forgiven him (Omar Sy).
You can see why these people would be both repelled by and attracted to Adam’s charisma. There is a method to his madness. For example, he invites the sous chef to lunch at Burger King to make a point about first recognizing the absurdity of haute cuisine (why is it really so, so, so much more expensive than fast food?) before concluding that consistency is ultimately the enemy of any true food lover. They are going to challenge their customers in ways that a place like Burger King can’t. Elsewhere, he initially insults the kid from the pop-up shop until the polite, but increasingly annoyed kid finally stands up for himself, all part of a lesson about the importance of confidence to cooking
Ultimately, Adam will teach all of them how to be better cooks, and they’ll gradually teach him how to be a better person, which will in turn make him an even better cook. Win-win-win, right?
Along the way, we bear witness to some exhilarating cooking scenes. It might seem like I used the wrong word in that sentence, but “exhilarating” is the best way to describe it because in this realm of high-stress cooking the combatants are in constant motion, responding in unison to the commands barked out by their iron-fisted leader.
In the aforementioned DVD featurette, celebrity chef consultant Marcus Wareing explains that he insisted on absolute authenticity. The actors all learned how to actually cook. Anytime we see them making food in the movie they’re making real food they prepared from start to finish. They weren’t allowed to simply step in to film the easy parts after real chefs had prepared everything for them. No, Cooper, Miller and gang became a complete unit, their bonding experience mirroring what’s happening with their characters in the film. Wareing even claims Sienna Miller, whose character mans the fish station in the kitchen (apparently the most challenging station there is), became so proficient that she could go to work in just about any real kitchen tomorrow. For her part, Miller refers to her time on Burnt as being some of the hardest work of her career, an experience she wears like a badge with the literal scars to show for it.
It’s just a shame that all of the effort was wasted on a film whose story is unworthy of its performers. As was the case with Cooper’s protagonist in his other 2015 box office bomb Aloha, way too much is held back about his character’s background. As BluRay.com put it, “Burnt never truly sets its character up for a serious bit of life reversal. Jones’ past is more an idea than it is a tangible concept the audience can deeply appreciate and understand, and his path to redemption is never given any serious thought beyond the moment and the broadest of story direction.”
He did, um, something back in Paris. It was bad.
He had some kind of relationship with the daughter of his mentor, and she shows back up to mostly look gorgeous (Alicia Vikander can’t help that) and increasingly concerned.
He owes some guys a lot of money for, um, something.
Plus, there are parts that just don’t quite add up to enough. For example, the gay owner of Adam’s new restaurant is helplessly in love with him. Meanwhile, Adam’s kind of, sort of falling in love with Sienna Miller’s character. It’s all far too undercooked.
Undercooked? Really? Another cooking pun? Try harder, man.
Whenever Burnt is in the kitchen, it is a sight to behold, even for the most jaded Kitchen Nightmares-viewers. When it ventures out, though, it wastes some admirable performances on a lackluster story. That’s what makes it so vexing. It’s compulsively watchable, but it’s ultimately [wait for it] a meal in search of an actual recipe.
That’s it. You’re done. I don’t even know what “a meal in search of an actual recipe” even means.
THE CRITICAL CONSENSUS
28% – “Burnt offers a few spoonfuls of compelling culinary drama, but they’re lost in a watery goulash dominated by an unsavory main character and overdone clichés.”