I like Bradley Cooper and Daniel Bruhl. I enjoy Food Network and fine dining. If someone were to hurl the accusation of being a foodie in my direction -- really a coded way of saying I'm a snob -- I wouldn't argue. I am the target audience of the new film Burnt. So why did I spend much of its 101 minutes alternating between extreme boredom and dispassionate loathing? The easy explanation is that director John Wells and writer Steven Knight didn't do nearly enough to keep me interested. They somehow couldn't make Bradley Cooper compelling. There wasn't enough believable inside baseball about what a kitchen at an elite restaurant or food preparation at the highest level is really like. They used a cheap hook, the rarefied air of two- and three-star Michelin chefs, to tell a very basic redemption story, only they forgot to do anything to make their audience care about whether the protagonist actually ends up redeemed.
All of these things are true. All of them explain why I found Burnt to be so interminable and dull, despite the flashy shots of fish searing in a pan, beef being delicately, precisely plated and so on set against pristine white and stainless steel kitchen backgrounds. Only, this is a partially complete explanation.
If there's a fatal flaw to Burnt, it is actually a paucity of courage. Cooper's character, two-star Michelin chef Adam Jones, has a dark backstory. He's a recovering drug addict who washed out of a posh Paris restaurant and washed ashore in New Orleans.
His personal penance, as he tells us in voiceover as the film opens, is to shuck 1 million oysters before heading back to Europe (London this time) in search of his third Michelin star. As he begins his climb back up the culinary ladder, more darkness in his character is revealed. There are the expected Gordon Ramsay-esque flip outs, replete with dishes shattered against the kitchen wall. There is also an obsessive streak — a drive for greatness that is difficult for us normal folk to comprehend, an at once abhorrent and admirable drive to be the very best.
This is interesting territory. This is Whiplash over a stovetop. This, hypothetically speaking, is a movie I want to see. Burnt never lingers long enough on its best parts, though. It is too busy building a shaky romance between Cooper and his protege Helene, played by Cooper’s American Sniper counterpart Sienna Miller. Or it is explaining the delicate friendship between Jones and his maitre’d Tony, played by Bruhl, who harbors an unrequited love for the chef. Or it is spending precious minutes on the rivalry between Jones and another chef who already has his third Michelin star, played by The Americans‘ Matthew Rhys. Or Jones is working out the demons of addiction with a therapist played by Emma Thompson or making amends with an ex-girlfriend played by Alicia Vikander.
There is a seemingly unending cast of supporting characters, and I think they were intended to make Cooper’s character come to terms with his past sins. Trouble is, not one of them actually inspires any sort of personal reckoning. In fact, almost all of them fawn over his ability as a chef instead. The ones that don’t seem to shout the next step in his character development directly at him.
The net result is that Jones’ darker traits aren’t given any real depth and his “redemption” feels wholly unearned if it is even earned at all. The only true penance paid is at the beginning of the film, when he triumphantly shucks that millionth oyster. Burnt doesn’t go down either of the obvious paths — one I would have enjoyed, the other I could have tolerated — and so it ends up doing doughnuts around the proverbial fork in the road.
This is a nothing film in the sense that it doesn’t take you anywhere — a mashup of cliches and trite bits of wisdom and needless cameos. It is the cinematic equivalent of a food with no nutritional value. You can swallow it down, but it’s ultimately just passing through.