Before cooking on TV became big business and garnered huge viewership, before Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsey and Rachel Ray there were famous chefs. Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and for those really into food, Frédy Girardet. Before them Georges Auguste Escoffier French food God. Chefs were known – sometimes – but usually cloaked in a buttery glaze of perfection and mastery, and one knew little of their personalities. Julia Child was as idiosyncratic, and as delicious, as a croquembouche. Jacques Pepin was handsome, and fabulously elegant in his techniques. Lately, the demanding, impatient and furious chef has appeared as the stereotype, and while working in a professional kitchen is no pleasure cruise to speak of, its portrayal in the film BURNT asks why anyone in their right – or wrong – mind would ever subject themselves to an environment led by someone like Bradley Cooper’s Chef Adam Jones.
Jones is a wildly ego-maniacal, demonically manipulative and angry guy. A one-time rising culinary genius in a famous Parisian restaurant, he imploded from his abuse of drugs, women and his vindictive behavior. Said restaurant, in part due to his actions, summarily closed leaving a wake of orphaned culinary talents and hurt feelings. Jones’ self imposed time-out was in New Orleans where he shucked 1,000,000 oysters for penance, and then, no wiser or temperate, decided to manipulate his way back into the food world of London by maneuvering things and using people in a way typically employed by imprisoned Wall Street bankers.
Returning to his former employer and friend Tony (Daniel Bruhl), Jones informs him that he will take over his restaurant. Let me clarify here, it is not up for grabs per se. He then assembles a cadre of souls to help him achieve his ultimate goal, the only thing that seems to make his life worth living – 3 Michelin stars.
There have been dozens of films about food and cooking. The preparation of food is innately linked to human existence. At its best food can nourish, evoke love and passion…transforming those lucky enough to consume it. I could rattle off a long list of films which left me starving for more, eager to cook, enchanted by raw fish, pomegranate seeds, and countless chocolate jewels. BURNT has endless microscopically close-up shots of flora and fauna, plates with artistic dishes, but it fails to make us hungry. Its surgical precision robs us of the passion, the texture – the sensory yearning we seek in watching movies about food. Furthermore (and I haven’t even begun to discuss Jones as an individual) the cinematography is static and only adds to the epidemic of close-up mania whereby we never get to enjoy the interaction between characters because we are looking right up their nostrils in every scene.
The reason many restaurants have open kitchens is so we, the diners, can watch the dance of the ensemble; the grill person, the saucier, the ringleader, the chef… BURNT hardly ever allows us to witness the masterful way chefs and cooks flow around each other, weaving a shared labor of love resulting in one’s (hopefully) perfect dish.
It remains unclear to me precisely what BURNT wants to be. Are we to be inspired by Adam Jones? Is it a morality tale of someone who had it all and threw it away? Is it redemptive…why do we want Adam to succeed? The fact is, you don’t really care whether he gets his 3rd star, overcooks the turbot, lives or dies. And here’s why: In order to engage an audience with an inspiring, driven protagonist one of two conditions must be present. Either he/she has something to lose, something precious, something beautiful at risk, OR, despite their struggles, anger, and human frailty, he or she must endear themselves in some small way to the audience.
Unfortunately Adam Jones possesses neither, and when he suffers the extraordinary denouement, which, I might add is the best scene in the entire film – the scene where the story finally comes alive – he flails about like a drunken, histrionic toddler. Director John Wells has already set a precedent for directing hard driving, relentless characters in both THE COMPANY MEN (hateful corporations) and AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (hateful family). Here he just moves the same crew to a kitchen.
You do not root for Jones. He lacks any attractive qualities save for perhaps his hipster perma-stubble chest hair, and he has nothing to lose. He has already reached his nadir. You can summon empathy for others on his team perhaps, the lovelorn Tony, the wonderfully colorful Max (Riccardo Scamarcio), the single-mother Helene (Sienna Miller) and certainly her spectacular daughter Lily played by make-sure-you-watch-her-rising-star Lexi Benbow-Hart, but not for Adam. Hell, you even root harder for his arch-nemsis Reece played with a subtle Ringo Starr-lesser-Beatle cuteness by Matthew Rhys.
There is a LOT of petulant, enraged, spiteful Adam in the ample 100 minutes, screaming, insulting, and breaking perfectly good china. The body count for dinner plates is extraordinary. Sadly the only thing we are left with is a nasty cut from broken dinnerware and a bad taste in our mouths.(2.5 / 5)
Director: John Wells
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl, Omar Sy, Riccardo Scamarcio, Matthew Rhys, Sam Keeley, Uma Thurman, Lexi Benbow-Hart
Running Time: 100 minutes
BURNT Movie Review