“I want to make food that makes people stop eating.”
To say that Burnt is bad, as most critics will probably tell you, is in poor taste. This is a movie you must understand the ins and the outs of to really comprehend. To thoroughly grasp. You can’t watch a football film without knowing the rules of the game and have it leave the same lasting effect on you. Thus, you must make sense of the dynamics of a kitchen. We like what we already know as well as what peaks our interests, often shying away from what actually pushes us to actualization. Most of our drive-thru, microwave dinner aficionados just won’t fully get this. A little story, a lotta heart, a mushy head…that is the movie’s seared exterior. Not all of it gels together smoothly, yet to mess up and to strive for perfection is to cook, and that ultimately is the film’s unattainable endeavor. Burnt may not get there, but at least it tries.
Tucked away and alienated in the underbelly of New Orleans, Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) starts this journey shucking oysters. One million of them to be exact. Breaking the shells is his healing process. You see, Adam once was the chef of two-star Michelin restaurant in Paris. For those not in the know, Michelin stars are reserved for the best of the best. Get 3 and you’re considered one of the world’s supreme dining experiences. The only way to do that is to be perfect. And when I say perfect, I mean pristine and flawless and every detail executed without error. Not a false note can be found. Adam’s career skyrocketed too young too fast, and his rock and roll partying and drug habits swiftly brought him back down, making enemies and losing friends along the way. Adam’s goal is perfection through absolute control because that’s what perfectionists do. Which is why it is so important that the viewer remembers where we meet this man. He is, in the words of the musical group The New Basement Tapes, “Down on the bottom. No way to go but up.” And any well-adjusted person knows that can’t be done alone.
Adam Jones makes his way to London to meet Tony (Daniel Brühl). Tony was once the maître d’ of Adam’s restaurant, now running an unsuccessful eatery with an uninspired kitchen. Adam is manipulative, sending a food critic through Tony’s doors, showing up in his chef coat and knives under his arms. The food is bad, and Adam knows that unless Tony lets him cook the restaurant will be panned. “I’m gonna run the best restaurant in the world,” Adam says to his old friend, hoping for him to jump on board and be his benefactor as well. For all intents and purposes, Adam Jones is a selfish character who we should not like. He is arrogant and cocksure and usually just a smug asshole. However, it’s warranted, given his troubled background, as well as the fact that he really is the world’s best chef. That may seem relative and subjective, but he believes it, as do others. Burnt is made out of story devices that serve Adam and no one else, mixing components to further only his character arc. Maybe that’s too narrowly focused. So is the film though, and because of Bradley Cooper’s possessed performance, by the time the last shot comes we know this man. Where he was, where he is, and where he might be heading. Criticize the subplots all you want. That’s justified. But appreciate how much humanity is put into the heart of this fragile beast.
John Wells directs the film with adequacy, albeit far too many shots. The editing makes things indiscernible, using 5 shots when 1 would suffice. And Rob Simonsen’s score is ideal until he steals from his own work for the end, lazily borrowing music he composed for The Spectacular Now. Burnt would be nothing without its cast though, headlined by Bradley Cooper who gives a commanding, impeccable performance as Anthony Bourdain’s blood brother. Cooper has the gift that every actor hopes to be blessed with – presence. When he yells at his kitchen staff, you get the feeling he’s really doing it. When he speaks fluent French, you believe he spent years in Paris learning the language. This is award’s worthy work failed by a script with too many amuse-bouches. The death of his mentor, his rocky relationship with an old girlfriend, drug dealers threatening for debts owed, a handful of friends/cooks who he screwed over. The only one with any credibility is played by Sienna Miller. She’s Helene, a chef unaware of her talent and a single mother to one. Miller brings ferocity and beauty, equaling out Adam’s faults to sustain their chemistry. They never make love on-screen, but they make food, and sometimes the two can be one in the same…can take you to identical places. Cooking and filmmaking are both art forms capable of perfection. It’s rarely achieved, and Burnt is far from masterful, but I will never fault a picture for pursuing greatness, because that is precisely what art – at its most sublime – is meant to do.
“If it’s not perfect you throw it away.”
Rating: 4 out of 5