Once upon a time, Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook) was one of the most celebrated chefs in the world. He was a hotshot American tasked with running a Parisian restaurant owned by his mentor Jean-Luc, and he quickly established a reputation as a volatile, risk-taking badass of the culinary world. In the words of one of his colleagues: “He's the Rolling Stones.” Alas, Adam's volatility eventually caught up with him: a wild, drug-fueled lifestyle eventually led to a devastating flameout that included the closure of Jean-Luc's restaurant. Feeling guilty and determined to get his life back on track, Adam traveled to New Orleans, vowing to shuck a million oysters before attempting a comeback.
John Wells' Burnt begins just as that millionth oyster is shucked. Adam is planning to start a new place in London, but he's going to need help. Unfortunately, most of the real pros he knows are people he burned bridges with earlier in life, so his Seven Samurai-style recruitment tour typically doubles as an apology tour. Over the course of the film's first act, he manages to gain the services of maitre d' Tony (Daniel Bruhl, Rush), sous chef Helene (Sienna Miller, American Sniper), old co-worker Michel (Omar Sy, Jurassic World) and young up-and-coming chef David (Sam Keeley, In the Heart of the Sea), among others. His goal: to attain a rare three-star Michelin rating.
Burnt isn't a bad movie, but it's definitely the sort of story that gets told a little too often in the world of cinema (and a number of other art forms, for that matter): the tale of a guy just trying to find his center and figure out who he is. It's certainly possible to make a good movie from that premise, but it's awfully easy to make a blandly conventional one. More often than not, Burnt falls into the latter category. The central dramatic conflict here is “will this guy achieve his dream or will he screw up again?”, which might have looked good on paper but doesn't actually turn into anything particularly compelling. I suspect that's largely because you can sense that the film is operating with a pretty big safety net underneath – it's too predictable and too generically pleasant to let Adam watch his dream turn to dust. I'm not saying that had to happen for the movie to be interesting, but I wish the film at least made the audience believe that it's an actual possibility.
Still, the film is generally pleasant, in the way a [insert simple but basically likable food item here] typically is. The screenplay by Stephen Knight doesn't have much to offer in the way of depth or drama, but he doesn't manage to insert just enough flavor into the dialogue to prevent the film from sounding like an assembly of inspirational drama cliches (the scene in which Adam asks one of his underlings to apologize to a dead fish is the sort of writerly moment that probably shouldn't work but somehow does). Wells doesn't have a particularly distinctive style – visually, all of his movies fit into the same generic “classy drama” vein – but he does a fine job of accentuating the wide variety of delicious-looking dishes scattered throughout the film, and his cooking sequences have a brisk, satisfying vibe that the rest of the film could have used.
Cooper has become something of a specialist in depicting gifted-but-damaged men, and it's to his credit that he manages to find some new notes within the confines of this performance. His Adam is supremely arrogant, but more grounded and less theatrical than an “angry chef” like Gordon Ramsey... his verbal barbs are meant to wound, not to entertain an unseen audience. One of the film's strongest sequences finds Adam in self-destruct mode; melting down in front of his bewildered chief rival Reece (Matthew Rhys, The Americans). Amidst all the sound and fury of his tantrum, Cooper locates some real pain.
The supporting cast features a diverse collection of talented folks, but they aren't really given a whole lot of interest to do. At one point, one character admits that Adam is the best chef in the world, and that everyone else is just trying to do their best to keep pace with him. Likewise, the film seems curiously nervous about letting anyone else outshine Cooper, particularly its impressive collection of actresses: in addition to the aforementioned Miller (who quickly enters a “will they/won't they” relationship with Cooper), the film mostly squanders the talents of Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), Uma Thurman (Kill Bill), Emma Thompson (Stranger Than Fiction) and Lily James (Cinderella). The men fare a little better: Rhys makes an enjoyably complicated not-quite-villain, and Bruhl has a handful of charming little moments as the stammering maitre d'.
It's always a little difficult to know what to say about a film like Burnt. It's not great. It's not terrible. It's not boring. It's not riveting. There's absolutely no reason you really need to see it. There's not really a good reason to avoid it. Maybe some exclamation points will help? It's fine! A functional piece of cinema! I didn't hate it! The food looks good! Bradley Cooper is decent! It's Burnt!
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 2015