Start with a charismatic ‘bad boy.’ Add a dash of troubled past. Sprinkle in former enemies, and simmer in some old flames. Fill to top with food close-ups. Mix vigorously. With an all-star cast and an established director, Burnt should have been a recipe for success. Instead, this predictable redemption story is a disappointing flameout.
After a fall from grace as one of the top chefs in Paris, angry alcoholic Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) is fresh out of rehab and finally ready to snatch his elusive third Michelin star—the Nobel Prize of the culinary world. He goes to London and puts together an Ocean’s Eleven-like team of chefs out for vengeance and culinary glory. Disappointingly, and in similar fashion to the Las Vegas heist story, only one woman is part of the team here, serving primarily as the movie’s romantic foil. Jones’s all-star team brings together the expert maître d’ Tony (Daniel Brühl), the scorned former colleague Michel (Omar Sy, in a welcome return to American screens after the phenomenal The Intouchables, and the less impressive X-Men: Days of Future Past), the ex-con Max (Riccardo Scamarcio), the up-and-coming chef David (Sam Keeley), and “the girl” Helene (a wasted Sienna Miller). Can this angry, self-absorbed former addict realize that his painstaking perfectionism and lack of meaningful relationships are actually the barriers to his goal? You already know the answer.
They say the best stories start in the middle, where the action takes place. We don’t want to see two characters meeting each other for the first time; we would rather see them arguing, or tucking each other in bed, or driving to their daughter’s soccer game. Burnt takes this advice to heart, and it starts in the third act of Adam Jones’s life, extending to the characters surrounding him. But in portraying Adam’s long-established relationships, the audience is left out of the loop. Adam’s life is so overstuffed with backstories and prior relationships that each new character we meet doesn’t quite add up with our limited knowledge as outsiders.
Within the first act alone, we discover Adam’s mental health and drug abuse problems, we watch his confrontations with a sea of scorned French colleagues, with a friend he got imprisoned, with a new love interest (complete with angry ex-husband and neglected child), with a rival chef at a nearby restaurant, as well as with Adam exploiting a friend (who is also in love with him); not to mention his ongoing therapy sessions. This is in addition to the supporting characters’ constant and annoyingly cryptic references to “what happened in Paris,” without ever explaining what exactly happened. Each of these plots leads to a subplot, branching to another subplot, branching to another. . . . As such, Burnt is the Mandala art of subplot movies. The trouble with having countless subplots is that none of them receives proper attention, and all are left unresolved. Burnt is at once too much and not enough, stuck between a character study and an ensemble piece, and not doing either particularly well.
The abundant subplots are probably there to mask the screenwrite-by-the-numbers story of the angry genius, and his singular devotion to a goal that won’t actually bring him happiness. This is particularly obvious when we compare Burnt to the plot of other recent culinary movies, like the feel-good food porn Chef, or the multicultural cheese fest The Hundred Foot Journey. While Burnt seeks to be the grimier, more mature, colder cousin to these ‘light fare’ films, it actually could have benefitted from some of their heart and sincerity.
For all its storyline blunders, Burnt triumphs in the food presentation, and it does truly triumph. Editor Nick Moore expertly splices quick shots of ingredients under preparation in the busy kitchen, and adeptly slows the pace towards the final, delicious product. Do not see this film between meals, as I learned the hard way. The expected tropes of cooking movies are there—butter melting in a swirling pan, fingers pinching colorful spices, the satisfying burst of a knife splitting an egg yolk—and they are elevated by the colorful, frenetic cinematography of the kitchen, which offers a stark contrast to the dark, moody visuals prevalent outside the cooking galley. Director John Wells’ quick cuts, close-ups, and shaky handheld camerawork, present throughout most of the movie, create a sense of intimacy and urgency for the characters, even though none really exists.
Nevertheless, the film’s confusing and exhausting plot is made all the more distasteful by its phenomenal cast, since they actually do deliver stellar performances despite the story’s sinking ship. There is such a thing as too many cooks, and as a result of the overstuffed cast, the movie’s stars are mostly kept hidden in short scenes. Emma Thompson shines as Adam’s patient therapist, Alicia Vikander charms as an ex-lover, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo by Uma Thurman could have been exceptional, but in the end comes across as a missed opportunity.
The only two characters with proper screen time are Adam and Helene, and though they are not awful, neither do they sparkle. Sienna Miller simply doesn’t have enough to do, and her single-mom-with-troubled-past story is mostly ignored to help nurture Adam as a compelling protagonist. Bradley Cooper has all but monopolized the role of talented guy with mental health issues (Silver Linings Playbook, American Sniper), and he does not disappoint as Adam Jones. Still, he plays the character a tad too physically—throwing glassware in anger, laughing maniacally in frustration—and ignores the raw emotional acting we have come to expect from his recently lauded performances. I applaud Brad for clearly taking some French lessons before shooting, though his French is not convincingly fluent. But though both he and Sienna do some real work in these roles, the standouts are all in the cameos, which are frustratingly terse.
With the exception of one smart plot twist, most of the film’s emotional turns are predictable or overplayed. The film is about ten minutes too long, reducing its moralizing commentary into an easily digestible, hodgepodge epilogue for its viewers. There are moments of physical, eye-rolling, repulsive cheesiness (“I want to make food that makes people stop eating”) and these ultimately create a tone of overall insincerity. While it could have been a gritty exploration of the cutthroat world of competitive cooking told from the point of view of a scorchingly ambitious genius, Burnt leaves only its audience feeling charred.
While the acting and editing simmer, the poor pace and plot leave a bitter taste.