Never underestimate a man with nothing to lose.
For many, food has become a staple of modern-day living, a cultural beat so to speak. Come on folks, this isn’t really much of a surprise given that television stations are being overrun by a variety of cookery programs, cook books have become the current coffee table tome and even social media ‘pop-ups’ are enticing the public to wine-and-dine at newfangled or nearby venues. We inevitably live in an era where chefs are regarded as ‘rock stars’ or coddled divas and behave accordingly — erratic, violent behaviors are all to familiar in a high pressured kitchen, where tensions tend to run wild behind extensive restaurant lines, filled with famished patrons eager for a feed. Individuals, however, don’t generally get into cooking to make loads of money, as the vocation is both a passion and a gift that can turn into a career; many elite chiefs take their job extremely seriously, creating food like it’s a work of art.
Burnt tells the story of one such chef, Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper), a former ‘enfant terrible’ of the Paris food scene who literally had it all but lost it; Adam’s incessant bad habits cost him everything — his ego and addiction (falling victim to heroin) outshining his unmatched talent. In an attempt to straighten out his disheveled life, Adam embarks on a crusade to land his own kitchen, hoping to get the best-of-the-best on his side as he endeavors to reassemble the all-star culinary ‘dream team’ he used to work with back when he was the toast of the Paris restaurant arena.
Adam’s eventual goal is to win himself the desirable third Michelin star — a gourmet chef’s ultimate seal of approval — which eluded him back in France when he was a young up-and-comer, where all he ever cared about was the thrill of cooking up explosions of taste. For those not in the know, Michelin awards eateries 0 to 3 stars depending on the basis of anonymous on-the-spot checks, made by inspectors who scrutinize countless aspects of the restaurants they review — presentation and consistency of food, mastery of technique, ambiance of the eating-place and the originality of the dishes on offer. These stars are the Oscars of the cuisine world, the superlative prize in the profession: one star signifies a good ‘high quality’ place to stop over and dine; two stars suggests that a restaurant justly merits a detour, indicating excellent, skilfully prepared dishes of outstanding quality; and three stars, well that denotes a restaurant truly worth that ‘special journey,’ where meals (crafted using only the best ingredients) are composed so superbly and precisely that, in the words of Adam Jones, ‘they will make people want to stop eating.’
Pressing on, as it so happens, before Adam can bounce back to such a new and high-ranking stature, he needs the support and assistance of an A-list restaurant. In comes Tony (Daniel Brühl), a understandably wary old acquaintance of Adam’s, now working in London as The Langham Hotel’s maître d,’ who, after some justifiable indecision, gives in to Adam’s request and loans him the finances and the cutting-edge crew of cooks he needs, presenting Adam with the possibility of atonement and second chance at the success he squandered years earlier.
Set in London, the world capital of fine dining, Burnt is a relatively entertaining and somewhat riveting drama, one that overcomes most of its obvious flaws thanks to some solid scripting and a lively ensemble cast; the picture is resonant even if it often feels hurried and jumbled in places. Now, this comes as a bit of a surprise, especially considering the project’s reported troubled production, having experienced a handful of setbacks behind the scenes; the film went through numerous title changes (it was primarily set to be called Chef, but Jon Favreau had already nabbed the name for another film, then it was re- titled Adam Jones, which again changed earlier this year) and let’s not forget about the relentless talk of reshaping that was allegedly being done on the fly.
Food aficionados will definitely relish in Brunt’s many mouth-watering prep-and-plate sequences, which were supervised by top caliber British Michelin-starred chef Marcus Wareing, who also appeared as a judge on the BBC Two series MasterChef: The Professionals. These delectable scenes, shots of small, succulent, gorgeously coordinated helpings — swiftly and expertly sliced-and-diced by editor Nick Moore, Love Actually (2003) — are usually served up as part of a montage and are exceedingly authentic in helping generate the film’s moody-foodie atmosphere. The flick’s screenplay, penned by Steven Knight, Seventh Son (2014), based on a story by Michael Kalesniko, is mostly by-the-numbers and generally plays it safe, sticking to a formulaic recipe, one where our hero sets off on a long-road to redemption before he can succeed as the head of a loyal, loving and fully functioning kitchen family. The few kitchen calamity centerpieces, one in which a volatile Adam lashes out and tears into his staff after somewhat of a disastrous opening night has a seared and edgy energy, whereas another toward the film’s climax — a turn of events one certainly won’t see coming — will surely have viewers shaken and stunned — you’ll know the part, so I needn’t say more. These dramatized high-stake cookhouse moments are by far Burnt’s meatiest and most sizzling.
Thankfully Burnt’s spirited performances add a generous prominence to the film’s routine nature. Bradley Cooper cooks up a storm as daredevil chef Adam Jones, starting out as a one-man kitchen nightmare (the seasoned star not afraid to be too unlikable here) who turns over a new leaf as the film’s trajectory focuses on Adam’s eventual path to recovery, making peace with his former sins whilst trying to live clean. All the same, having the affable Cooper in the leading role does make the flick’s ‘distasteful’ protagonist easy to sympathize with and eventually root for. Working in a kitchen as a young man and having also played a chef ten years earlier in the small-screen series Kitchen Confidential (2005), Cooper is incredibly genuine as the two-star Michelin maestro (motivated to regain the stars he lost and surpass his prior success), delivering a nuanced rendering of Adam Jones, a man fallen on hard times, capturing the character’s flawed nature and complexities; his arrogance, confidence, determination, technical skill and commitment — we can see that Adam is an enthusiastic professional, steadfast on achieving extraordinary artistry and gaining acclaim no matter what, or who, he steps on.
Having previously co-starred together in American Sniper (2014), the delicious Sienna Miller re-teams with Cooper for Burnt, proving that Helene — a talented underling whom is manipulated by Adam into joining the team — can handle the heat in Adam’s kitchen. While the gritty and angst-ridden Helene is undoubtedly set to stir things up, Miller’s spirited and feisty rendering of the brilliant, yet insecure sous-chef and single-mother — blossoming under Adam’s unconventional guidance — definitely elevates Cooper’s work; Miller is ‘hands-down’ the best part of this film, giving it a sturdy backbone and some much needed softness. There’s also that inevitable Hollywood ‘boil meets grill’ quasi-romantic thread, one that simmers between Cooper and Miller, which isn’t all too ‘bogus’ thanks to the flick’s quality leads, both sharing undeniable chemistry.
Alongside our stars, Burnt’s peripheral cast is equally as appetizing; there’s Daniel Brühl, Inglourious Basterds (2009), who’s tip-top as restaurant manager Tony, a former co-worker of Adam’s who seems to bear a love-hate relationship with the unstable chef; French-born Omar Sy, The Intouchables (2011), is fairly layered as Michel, a former rival wronged by Adam who oddly agrees to join Adam’s new crew; Sam Keeley, Monsters: Dark Continent (2014), as Adam’s protegé David, who, while decent, is largely sidelined up until the closing portion of the flick, and then there’s Emma Thompson, Love Actually (2003), as Dr. Rosshilde, a therapist whom Adam is forced to visit on a weekly basis, undergoing regular drug tests and counseling — as ordered by his investor Tony — playing a major part in the broken upmarket chef’s journey of re-discovery.
Working as a kind of antagonist, Matthew Rhys, The Edge of Love (2008), balances brutality and compassion as Reece, Adam’s former nemesis, now owner of a snug and trendy three-star roost, though he’s quite aware that it might only be a matter of time until the more gifted Adam returns to the top (that’s assuming he can get his affairs in order). With her character not existing in the initial script, the scorching Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina (2015), pops up for about five or so minutes as Anne Marie, a significant figure from Adam’s past, though her short-lived arrival is so pithy that it hardly makes an impact. Lastly Uma Thurman, Gattaca (1997), putting on a phony British accent, drops in for literally two scenes as Simone, a snooty one-note food critic — honestly, you’ll probably forget she was even in this thing. The latter two actresses don’t really have much to do either, subsequently taking precious time away from the heart of the movie — perhaps these pint-sized portions should have been left on the chopping board, resurfacing as deleted scenes on the Blu-ray or DVD release later down the line.
Fortunately director John Wells, August: Osage County (2013), makes bona fide chefs out of all his actors, as everyone playing a cook certainly looks the part, with all the background workers being real-life career chefs. Burnt is at its most tantalizing when showcasing the intensity of the environment in a high-octane kitchen — the heat, pressure and ferocity — and falters only in its plotting, being a tad to untidy and crowd-pleasing. A smorgasbord of convincing performances ultimately sells this character-driven drama that’s garnished with scrumptious images of flavorsome meals. A feast for film and food connoisseurs alike, Burnt is sure to titillate the taste buds and nourish those hungry for this sort of mainstream entertainment.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner
Burnt is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia