by Philip Price
“Burnt” will certainly make you hungry. Whether it is for food or the better movie this had the potential to be will have to be decided by you when you come around to the "too neatly wrapped" ending it doesn't really deserve. For my money, “Burnt” is a movie that is fine enough because it features another committed performance from Bradley Cooper doing what he does best and that is him digging into the psyche of his character. What makes “Burnt” a not so stellar vehicle for the guy’s talent is the fact it is a story we've seen numerous times before. As soon as the set-up is delivered and we're keen to the conditions of all the major players it is clear where this thing is heading. Still, the credentials the movie sports are more than solid: Steven Knight (“Locke”) penned the screenplay (he also wrote last year’s under-appreciated “The Hundred-Foot Journey” to which “Burnt” feels like a lesser version), John Wells is at the helm (though it was once supposed to be directed by David Fincher-which really makes me want to see a Fincher/Cooper collaboration) and besides Cooper we have a pedigreed cast that includes Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Alicia Vikander, Omar Sy and Emma Thompson not to mention a quick cameo from Uma Thurman. So, with so much going for it why does “Burnt” feel so stale? It's actually somewhat difficult to pinpoint as it's not as simple as blaming it on any one aspect. The film, as shot by Adriano Goldman (Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre), is gorgeous to look at-numerous shiny surfaces contradicted by dark shades of facial hair and the bags under Cooper's eyes with the lovely London setting all adding something of a spice to the proceedings. The dialogue is direct, the intensity of Cooper's Jones when he gets worked up in the kitchen, while Gordon Ramsey-esque, is believable and yet it is the obligations the film feels it needs to make these characters hit that pull it into mediocrity. It's not the single downfall, but it becomes the most glaring the closer we get to the conclusion.
Chef Adam Jones (Cooper) seemingly had it all a few years ago and by abusing drugs, the drink, women and any number of other addictions combined with his penchant for diva-like behavior he lost it. Jones is a two-star Michelin rock star chef who, when we meet him, is shucking oysters in Louisiana. Having left the Paris food scene for what many of his peers apparently thought was an untimely death in the vein of a young star who shined so bright he burnt out just as quickly Jones has actually been serving under his own penance in order to make himself go straight. After three years of solitude and a million oysters shucked Jones returns to the restaurant scene, this time in London, with the goal of achieving his third Michelin star. To do this, he has to find the right backer and the right team for his kitchen. By corralling famous food critic Simone Forth (Thurman) into writing about a wealthy hotel heir's restaurant that has fallen from its once unreachable heights Jones convinces Tony (Brühl), with whom he clearly has a past relationship with, to let him back into the kitchen. Tony is hesitant given Jones' past, but in order to guarantee a good review Tony allows Jones to cook for Simone. After proving that he is in fact cleaning up his act, Tony promises to retrofit his restaurant and kitchen to Jones' liking with the power to hire his own team as long as he goes to mandatory counseling sessions once a week with therapist Dr. Rosshilde (Thomspon) who will also administer drug tests to the chef. If Jones stays clean, he stays in charge. Simple as that. With his goal now in reach Jones recruits old pals Michel (Sy) and Max (Riccardo Scamarcio) while bringing in fresh blood with the young, but hungry David (Sam Keeley) and the best of the best that London has to offer in the beautiful Helene (Sienna Miller).
In the beginning of the film there is an energy set in motion, with an almost rejuvenating quality to the music and the pacing. Wells brings us into the character of Adam Jones by having Cooper react to people reacting to the fact he's still alive. And so, we're intrigued by his backstory-what was he once like? What actually happened in Paris? Why wasn't he aware his mentor has passed away? And why does he no longer have dealings with his mentor's beautiful daughter (Vikander)? What is the dispute between him and fellow chef Reece (Matthew Rhys)? Does he have the right to be as arrogant as he is? Is there something more that makes Helene not want to work for him? The questions pile up before we can breathe and yet, for the most part, it works to create an image of who this guy was, what he came from, and who he is now trying to be. That Jones was once a doomed youth gave him something of an intrigue, a mysterious quality that led spectators to wonder where he would end up, but that he ended up as little more than a doomed middle-aged man is nowhere near as romantic. In fact, it's slightly off-putting and thus Jones has to work that much harder to retain his status as the best cook in the world. Early on, the film genuinely feels like it's on to something as the expected "problems of Jones' path coming back to haunt him" storyline doesn't immediately rear its ugly head. Instead, we are more interested in how Jones can reclaim his title. In the first run through with his new restaurant the plates are not up to par and the energy is lackluster. Jones bleeds into an anger and rage that is inexcusable. It's an interesting case of watching a former addict rehabilitate himself through what he loves. As if the lack of a substance to remedy his feelings of need make him all the more volatile, especially in the wake of failure. If this is where the film was heading, I was in. Even through the exploration of collaboration, the seeming remedy to his explosions of anger, I was interested in where the film might take us, but then Knight brings back what we expect a redemption tale to entail and from there the film goes into a tailspin of its own.
Early on, I genuinely wanted to believe that Jones was more seeking solace and tranquility in his cooking rather than simply another Michelin star. While this may even be true to some extent and to Cooper himself, the film isn't strong enough to go out with this being the case and letting us draw our own conclusions about whether or not Jones achieved everything he desired. Maybe he achieved such solace in other ways, but we'll never know as another of the movie’s major downfalls is feeling as if it has to spell everything out for its audience. This is especially true when, halfway through the film, Thompson's character vocalizes everything we've already put together about Jones. As for the answers to the many questions the film poses, it more or less gets around to filling in the gaps on most of them, but much of it simply has to deal with Jones experiencing a rough childhood with his tough father that he was never able to get over. That's not to say daddy issues aren't legitimate, but the film doesn't commit to any such treatment in a way that it makes us feel anything close to empathy for the guy. And because the film really builds up Jones' past to be this huge amalgamation of bad decisions there is expected to be some kind of grand payoff or reveal that never comes. Instead, we are witness to the obligatory love story between Jones and Helene taking place when there is nothing from either individual's past that suggests this is a good idea. The film also tends to give us random details of Jones' past so as to bring them in at convenient times in order to make the present situation more dramatic. The twist with the Michelin men at the end also feels forced and something of a cop out so as to simply find a quick resolution and wrap things up under two hours. It's not that “Burnt” is actively bad, but it just seems that like it's protagonist it tends to make a lot of wrong decisions.
In the end, Jones learns the lesson that creating an atmosphere of harmony also creates a feeling of motivation and companionship among his chefs. There is nothing too revelatory to be found here, but returning to the smaller scale story that initially was more interesting this was the type of resolution I was looking for. The film does paint a full picture of the day to day of a tortured soul whose only outlet are his talents in the kitchen. And in this regard, it paints a full picture of the energy that a high-end kitchen can encompasses and those scenes where Cooper is able to be in full command of his life and his kitchen are truly thrilling. There is even a scene in which Sy's character, who up to this point felt underdeveloped and unappreciated, delivers a large dose of justification to his rather subdued performance. These moments are too few and far between though to really grant “Burnt” a recommendation. Instead, this is a film best enjoyed over the consistency of fast food. Maybe then, one might find something to truly appreciate in it.