Last year’s Chef, a studio system palate cleanser for director Jon Favreau, was the exact sort of oddball creation you’d expect to find in a food truck. Thinly veiled in its metaphor and debatably vain as it was, Chef caught on with moviegoers because Favreau’s passion project had the necessary ingredients to deserve such a branding (sweetness and enthusiasm will excuse a lot of aimless self-indulgence). Thanks to Burnt, the new Bradley Cooper-starring culinary drama, Favreau’s willingness to go off-menu now looks all the more appetizing in retrospect. The alternative for film-loving foodies, it would seem, is factory processed junk food that has all the zest and inspiration of spam by candlelight.
The better comparison point for Burnt is its holdover competition, Steve Jobs, a silver-tongued portrait of creative genius that crackles with flavor, even when pulling a lot of punches. Burnt, by contrast, is a Tested Great Man drama that’s too busy massaging its hero’s ego to ever raise a hand against him. At times it’s also a heist movie, a sports redemption tale, and a behind-the-swinging-double-doors look at gourmet culture, but more than anything, Burnt is a love letter to hotheaded visionary Adam Jones.
Who is Adam Jones? To the layperson, he’s a world-famous chef on the comeback track, Adam having reduced his reputation to that of chopped liver after crashing and burning through most of Paris’ narcotics supply. To those really in the know, however, Adam Jones is The Rolling Stones, God, and half the cast of Star Wars all roast tied into a hunk of raw brilliance so explosive that only a uniform with as many fastenings as a chef’s can contain him. Please note that none of those preceding comparisons are original, they’ve all been plucked from Steven Knight’s script, one that pairs high fructose dialogue to a limp structure like ketchup on overdone spaghetti.
Three years after getting sober in New Orleans and shucking a literal million oysters as penance, Adam returns to Europe hoping to earn the elusive third Michelin star for his new restaurant. Bankrolled and supported by old friends he abused while spiraling into addiction, Adam stops at nothing to give the world the sorts of daring, orgasmic (his words, not mine) food experiences that only he can provide. He may be a temperamental, motorcycle riding, leather jacket wearing (again, literally) loose cannon, but dammit if he doesn’t get gastronomical results! Except Adam is as concerned with doing things for other people as Burnt is with anything other than propping up a down on his luck bro-chef.
Only in director John Wells’ eyes can someone with the renown of Julia Child, the rock star ‘tude of Anthony Bourdain, and the vocabulary of Gordon Ramsay be seen as an underdog. Cooper, who has proven, time and again, the ability to undercut alpha male swagger with dashes of tender humility, has nothing but straw antagonists and problems to thicken his soup stock bad boy. Whenever Adam expresses a whisper of self-doubt or regret, the rest of the cast is there to shout sweet reminders of his excellence at him. By the third act, a gut-bustingly stupid series of twists and coincidences suggest Adam might actually be God, given how people and events always contort themselves to protect him.
The waste on display makes Burnt’s single-minded ambitions all the more obnoxious. Matthew Rhys, as Adam’s deliciously catty rival, would be a highlight if his character’s choices made a lick of sense, while Uma Thurman shows up for a hot minute as an influential food critic (who, even though she’s a lesbian, can’t resist Adam. Ditto for Daniel Brühl’s gay maître d’). Sienna Miller, as Adam’s new saucier/love interest, gets the meatiest role of any supporting player, but like everyone else, exists for the sake of remedying what few faults Burnt can stomach giving its maverick protagonist.
Adam’s pursuit of perfection follows the beat sheet recipe for most every movie redemption arc. The nadir, which sees Cooper trying to suffocate himself using a sous-vide bag, is exactly as labored and awkward as it sounds. The overcooked character drama outside the kitchen comes with an extra glaze of schmaltz thanks to Wells’ saccharine camerawork, as when a moppet eating a forkful of fish caramelizes into a gag-inducing serving of cinematic treacle. When Burnt stays in Adam’s stainless steel dojo, the pressure and heat of a kitchen at least gives you the pleasure of watching culinary craft in motion, but so too does a trip to Benihana.
An early sparring session between Cooper and Miller, set in a Burger King, has the two debating the distinction between fast food and fine dining. “It’s consistent,” Adam says in defense of the franchise, and it doesn’t cost $500 a meal, either. Burnt, in a similar sense, is consistent: it delivers the unsurprising, nutrient-free tribute to justified arrogance you’ve ingested in dozens of other such movies. The difference between food and film, then, is that the same price of admission will let you enjoy something a hell of a lot more satisfying than Burnt.
More Top Gun than Top Chef, Burnt is a largely insufferable character drama about one awesome dude’s struggle to be even more awesome.