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.