Thursday, November 05, 2015
BURNT (John Wells, 2015)
After a few years in the proverbial wilderness doing penance for his substance-abusing and womanizing past, chef Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) turns up in London determined to earn a prestigious third Michelin star. He burned a lot of bridges in the Parisian culinary world, but by drying out and swearing off booze, drugs, and women, Adam hopes to be able to redeem himself. His composure and ability to escape a troublesome history are in question in BURNT, but his talent never is. It’s why he can appear years after making a mess of things for himself and colleagues and still be granted the opportunity to do something great.
Adam persuades his former maitre d’ Tony (Daniel Brühl) to let him take over the kitchen at his father’s hotel restaurant, even if it means submitting to a weekly blood screening to prove he’s living cleanly. He assembles a dream team of former associates willing to let bygones be bygones, including sous chef Michel (Omar Sy), and newly discovered top talent like Helene (Sienna Miller). Adam senses a kindred spirit in Helene, which is why he has no qualms about being merciless in criticizing her work when she initially fails to live up to his high standards.
BURNT plays like a dramatized version of one of the many reality cooking shows, particularly those involving volatile chef Gordon Ramsay. He’s a chef consultant on BURNT, which presumably means Ramsay suggested the fine dining dishes that are lovingly filmed rather than gave Cooper lessons on how to yell and throw food in the trash. Adam demands perfection and barks at those in the kitchen like a dog with its nose pressed against the glass as its explosive cries try to intimidate passing cars. That the staff tends to treat Adam as some bulletproof genius they’ll go to the mat for seems somewhat absurd based on temperament and history.
Cooper brandishes the chef’s swagger with gusto. Whether he’s getting in a jab at a competitor’s interior design or smashing plates bearing unsatisfactory food, he’s entertaining in his cockiness. Casting Adam as a tragic figure by his own hand doesn’t work as well. Adam’s backstory is often hinted at but never fully elucidated, which makes him an empty vessel for a redemption tale. The character’s trials and tribulations seem rote, if present at all, leaving Adam to rely entirely on Cooper’s charisma to feel for him.
Adam speaks of wishing to cook food so satisfying that it makes the consumer want to stop eating. BURNT is more like potato chips, something that is appealing enough to eat mindlessly but is otherwise insubstantial. Director John Wells and screenwriter Steven Knight keep events moving along briskly. They are most successful in detailing and depicting the workings of a kitchen and the trends that run through the business. There’s more drama in the contemplation between using the frying pan or sous vide than in Adam’s pursuit of his profession’s highest honor.