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BURNT

The proliferation of food shows on television nowadays—an unhealthy trend in itself—has understandably piqued the interest of filmmakers; this latest vehicle for Bradley Cooper is proof of that. Unfortunately, “Burnt” also proves that celebrity chefs shouldn’t be taken too seriously. “Chef” and “The Hundred-Foot Journey” were no great shakes, but at least they treated the phenomenon with the dismissive, tongue-in-cheek attitude it deserves. By contrast this film, directed in a pedestrian fashion by John Wells from a script by Steven Knight, seems to want us to become emotionally invested in it. That’s a bad mistake.

Actually, the movie isn’t so much about the preparation of haute cuisine—though that’s the background against which the story is set, with an unconscionable number of montages showing dishes being made and served—as it’s a formulaic redemption tale of a talented guy who’s screwed up and is now trying to recover. Cooper plays Adam Jones, an American who once flew high among the master chefs in Paris but destroyed his career with booze, drugs and womanizing, burning his bridges with virtually all his colleagues, including his now-deceased mentor Jean-Luc and his daughter (Alicia Vikander), who was his partner in excess. After completing a self-imposed penance by shucking literally one million oysters in a New Orleans dive—without ever losing count, which shows what a perfectionist he is!—he’s off to London, where he aims to earn his third Michelin star and justify his life.

Adam is clean and sober, but as quickly becomes clear, he’s the same dictatorial, sharp-tongued guy he always was, ready to explode if his absolutist kitchen standards aren’t met. Still that doesn’t stop old friends he betrayed from rallying around his attempt. There include Tony (Bruhl), a master maitre ’d now running the mediocre restaurant in his ill father’s hotel; Michel (Omar Sy), former sous chef whose attempt to start a place of his own Adam sabotaged; and Max (Riccardo Scarmarcio), an assistant who is ever so conveniently just getting out of jail. London also happens to be where Adam’s greatest rival, Reece (Matthew Rhys) has set up shop, and our antihero makes a point of visiting his popular establishment to rile him up, just to get the juices flowing, as it were.

Tony hands over his restaurant to Adam—with whom he’s long been in love, we’ll learn—but with some conditions, requiring his unreliable friend to have regular sessions (and drug tests) with his own therapist (Emma Thompson). And Adam even persuades a renowned food critic (Uma Thurman) to drop by for a dinner to boost the place’s opening vibe. But even with Michel and Max on board in the kitchen and some new blood added to the mix—a young, talented fellow (Sam Keeley) and Helene (Sienna Miller), whom another old friend of Adam’s virtually forces to join his staff despite her misgivings—the less-than-inspiring cuisine Adam initially serves up proves a disappointment. It’s only after he and Helene spruce up the menu with innovative touches that the place really takes off, and it’s only a matter of time before their culinary collaboration will lead to something more personal; one can see the inevitable coming to pass when Adam is induced to make a birthday cake for Helene’s darling little daughter Lily (Lexi Benbow-Hart).

It’s the humanizing of Jones reflected in that act that provides the dramatic arc of “Burnt.” And that could be an entirely satisfactory story if it weren’t hammered home with such unrelenting contrivance. Except for one twist that supposedly destroys Adam’s chance at that third Michelin star—but doesn’t, as it happens, because of a ridiculous coincidence—everything that happens in Knight’s script is almost absurdly easy, in a sentimental sitcom way. The last half-hour amounts to a succession of simple solutions to Adam’s problems that come across like boxes on a list being summarily checked off. Tony’s infatuation with him? A couple of clever lines and a kiss handle that. A big debt Adam owes to some mysterious French dealers? A deus (or dea) ex machine takes care of that. The Michelin star? He gets what amounts to a do-over. And the self-destructive manner that puts everybody off? The love of a good woman is all that’s needed to solve that! All of which doesn’t mean, of course, that he doesn’t remain the genius with pots and pans that he always was. Even his greatest rival admits that he’s better than anyone else; in fact, they need him around to encourage them to do better.

It’s precisely these sorts of lazy solutions to the character defects that the script has burdened Jones with that turn “Burnt” into a soggy, ultimately unpalatable experience. The fault doesn’t lie with Cooper, who flings himself into the role with abandon and delivers Knight’s more inventively acerbic lines with relish. Ultimately, however, Jones seems more a caricature of the “hell’s kitchen” sort of chef than the real thing. Meanwhile the rest of the able cast are stuck with parts that are just personalized therapeutic instruments for his recovery. None of them come off particularly well, but among them Bruhl certainly gets the short stick. It’s positively painful to see him pining away after Jones with a yearning gaze and pinched lips.

Of course, one can well appreciate cinematographer Adriano Goldman’s work, not only in using to the full the London locations and the often exquisite restaurant interiors fashioned by production designer David Gropman, the art directing team headed by Karen Gropman, John Frankish and Joe Howard, and set decorator Tina Jones, but in shooting the close-ups of the many succulent dishes that editor Nick Moore has assembled in that parade of montages. In the end, though, “Burnt” is a cinematic dish that’s much like Jones’ cooking before Helene gives it an innovative nudge: overly familiar and curiously bland.

TRUTH

Pontius Pilate’s famous question is at the center of writer-director James Vanderbilt’s take on the notorious 2004 kerfuffle at CBS News that ultimately caused the downfall of long-time network anchor and elder statesman Dan Rather. Rather was lead correspondent on a“60 Minutes II” piece about the 1972-73 Texas Air National Guard service of President George W. Bush, then running for reelection. The story charged that Bush had used political influence to get a spot in the Guard, thus avoiding possible service in Vietnam. But it further suggested that Bush had failed to fulfill the responsibilities of his appointment, effectively going AWOL and then securing an early release from the obligation he’d committed to.

Unfortunately, some of the documents used in the story—memos dated 1972-73 and signed by Bush’s then immediate Air National Guard superior, by 2004 deceased—existed only in copies supplied by a mysterious source, a seriously ill Guard veteran who was reluctant to be named and, as it turned out, was not exactly honest about their provenance. After the program was aired, critics began to question the memos’ authenticity on technical grounds, and ultimately the validity of the supposed smoking gun, rather than the information the documents provided, became the major focus of debate. CBS higher-ups eventually decided that the team responsible for the flawed reportage had to be jettisoned to preserve their brand, and Rather was among those forced out. (He later sued the network, unsuccessfully, over his forced retirement.)

Vanderbilt’s film, based on the memoir of the segment’s producer Mary Mapes, is a rise-and-fall, or triumph-and-tragedy, retelling of this unhappy episode in modern television journalism, which touches upon the blood-sport politics had become by 2004 (the vicious “swiftboating” of John Kerry’s war record is pointedly referred to) but is basically a tale of a dogged team of reporters, on the trail of a big story, who were pressured to finish work on it quickly by superiors and then, when their haste resulted in an embarrassing failure to nail things down completely, suffered the consequences—the ruin of their careers. Deliberately left hanging is the truth of what the memos, forged or not, purported to tell. And to dive even deeper into the rabbit hole, if they were forged, who was the perpetrator, and what was the motive? (The finger usually points at Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, the source of the memos, though the film allows his wife, played by Noni Hazelhurst, a blistering speech in which she accuses the CBS team of trying to turn her husband into a scapegoat to save themselves.)

But while those are the issues of utmost importance in the case, “Truth” can’t answer them. Instead, under the workmanlike but unexceptional direction of writer-producer-turned-director Vanderbilt, it follows Mapes (Cate Blanchett), an ambitious, almost frenzied veteran of big stories, assembling and urging on her hand-picked team of researchers—Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), a Vietnam veteran; Mike Smith (Topher Grace), a scruffy but determined free agent; and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), a journalism professor—as they pore over the evidence themselves, consult with a battery of document experts and try to get substantiation of the memos’ authenticity from reluctant sources, many of whom refuse to go on the record while offering tantalizing hints of confirmation. Throughout Rather (Robert Redford) is portrayed as the paternalistic voice of caution, reminding Mapes and her colleagues of the need to make the story airtight and, after the report begins to disintegrate, showing greater concern for them than himself when their bosses—producer David Lyons (Josh Howard) and CBS News executives Betsy West (Rachel Blake) and Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood)—start thinking about ways to save the corporate reputation at any cost (and, it’s suggested, also maintain good relations with the Bush Administration). The result will be internal and external investigations that ultimately crucify the team by accusing them of shoddy. And very likely biased, practices.

What the film thus offers is what “All the President’s Men” might have been if Woodward and Bernstein had fumbled the ball and the existence of Oval Office tapes had never become public. It tries simultaneously to celebrate the dogged work of the CBS team and to show how its result was fundamentally flawed—at least in the all-important perception of the public. Predictably its basis in Mapes’ memoir gives it a certain self-serving air, and Blanchett’s intense performance, which touches on the character’s relationships with her abusive father and with her loving husband and son (John Benjamin Hickey and Connor Burke) can’t help but earn sympathy as the sharks start to circle around her. Still, one can’t escape the suggestion that Mapes did cut corners in her zeal to nail a big story in a timely fashion. Redford, meanwhile, might not look terribly like Rather, but he projects the newsman’s lofty demeanor expertly. The supporting performances—particularly by Grace, Quaid, Moss, Greenwood, Lyons and Blake—are solid without being especially distinctive, but Keach and Hazlehurst dig deeper in their relatively short turns. On the technical level the picture is more than adequate, its convincing look (by production designer Fiona Crombie and cinematographer Mandy Walker) quite remarkable given that a great deal of it was shot in Australia.

The ambiguity of “Truth” leaves it neither celebratory nor condemnatory, an interesting but slightly flat recounting of a major misstep in modern journalism.