In Burnt, Bradley Cooper stars as a once-renowned chef who won two Michelin Stars at a Paris restaurant, lost control of his life through drugs and booze, and sentenced himself to three years hard labor shucking oysters in New Orleans.
This is all backstory, as the film opens with Cooper’s Adam Jones shucking his millionth oyster and heading out to London, where all his friends (and enemies) from his Paris days have conveniently relocated. Here, he attempts to prove his worth – by winning a coveted third Michelin Star.
It’s the third high-profile chef-themed movie to come out in the last couple years, following The Hundred-Foot Journey, which followed the adventures of an Indian cook in rural France, and Chef, which saw Jon Favreau’s titular character take it to the streets (literally) in a food truck.
Burnt is the least conventional of these movies: writer Steven Knight (Locke) and director John Wells (August: Osage County) keep a familiar arc of redemption, but eschew many of the storytelling tropes, leaving us with a narrative that doesn’t contain the same-old scenes – but feels like it’s missing bits and pieces of its story in the process.
It’s also the most hoity-toity of the three, a full-blown drama about the high-end restaurant business that leaves any potential comedic or romantic material on the sidelines.
There’s the potential here for an engaging behind-the-scenes look at that restaurant business. Foodies (of the upscale kind) may appreciate it more than most, though there’s a real lack of mouth-watering food porn in the dishes that show up on screen.
But Burnt will have an uphill battle with most audiences. The story of this two-Michelin Star-winning chef trying to prove himself by winning a third star isn’t likely to resonate with most viewers; it might be the coveted top position in the restaurant world, but it’s a pretty abstract – and completely subjective – concept for most of us to be rooting for.
Beyond that, our lead here is a Gordon Ramsay-like raging asshole, and we’re not all that keen to see him succeed. You need the passion, the anger, to become a great chef, he tells one of his cooks. Fine. But throughout the film, I found myself rooting for this character to fail.
You know what I wanted to see? This movie told in reverse, with Jones ending up shucking a million oysters in New Orleans as karmic retribution for all his misdeeds.
It must be said, however, that Cooper is great at playing this arrogant prick; Burnt utilizes him as well as his Oscar-nominated turns in Silver Linings Playbook or American Hustle. And the supporting cast here is first-rate, with Daniel Brühl as the maître d’ of Jones’ new restaurant, Omar Sy as one of his cooks, Matthew Rhys as his competitor at a high-end London establishment, and Sienna Miller as his sous chef (and potential love interest).
Then there are a slew of recognizable faces in roles that seem to have been cut down to a bare minimum – and could have been cut from the film entirely. Emma Thompson takes Jones’ blood to make sure he’s clean, and also serves as a faux-therapist; Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) plays Jones’ ex-lover from Paris; and Uma Thurman shows up in a single scene as a London food critic.
The crux of Jones’ torment throughout the film is that he doesn’t want to serve something merely good, or even merely excellent: he wants to serve up something so mind-blowing that it will “make people stop eating.”
But Burnt doesn’t seem to share his ambition. In the end, I would have settled for merely good.