Movies · Reviews

Not So Much Burnt As It Is Underdone

By  · Published on October 29th, 2015

The Weinstein Company

Movies about characters meant to have immense talent in their chosen field face an uphill battle when it comes to making audiences believe the claim. Sports and music films have it easy – we see Rocky slugging it out in the ring, we hear Val Kilmer perfectly capture Jim Morrison in The Doors – but how do you persuade viewers that someone is the best chef? Easy. You just repeat it over and over again.

Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) was once on top of the culinary world, but his addictions and bad attitude left it all in ruins. He left Paris behind in disgrace and settled in New Orleans where he sentenced himself to a “penance” of shucking one million oysters, and now the time has come for a return to his former glory. Adam heads to London, maneuvers his way into the head chef position at an old acquaintance’s restaurant, and hand-picks his kitchen team with an eye on earning his third Michelin star. He’s surrounded by supporters and enemies, but the only one standing in his way is Adam Jones.

John Wells’ (August: Osage County) third feature as director aims to be a story about a bad-boy underdog forced to accept his weaknesses in order to find his strengths, and while it accomplishes that it accomplishes only that. Writer Steven Knight’s script shows none of the complexity or depth he brought to Locke and instead settles for a tale that simply ticks off the boxes as each expected course appears onscreen. Adam faces a challenge, fails, and then succeeds. What you see is what you get, no substitutions allowed.

We’re told repeatedly that Adam is the best, but not even the highly satisfied faces of people who’ve just barely pressed his food to their tongues do much to make it a tangible conviction. Ultimately, it’s Cooper’s passion and intensity that sell it best as his peculiar brand of cockiness – massive ego slivered with splinters of self-doubt – pulls us along on an established journey towards a guaranteed destination. He’s an undeniably charismatic performer, and he makes even lesser material passably entertaining because of it. That ability goes a long way towards making his prickish outbursts bearable too.

Just as we’re forced to simply accept Adam’s master chef abilities – in case you missed it several characters tell him and us that he’s the best – we’re also left blindly accepting the inevitable love bubbling up between Adam and the only female in his kitchen, Helene (Sienna Miller). She stands up to his constant berating, he says she reminds him of himself, and then they make some gravy together. It’s not quite a recipe for love.

The film frequently moves at the speed of a high-pressure kitchen, and it’s also typically appealing to the eyes thanks to cinematographer Adriano Goldman for the clean, sharp look and adviser Mario Batali for the endlessly appealing food shots. Ultimately though everything here feels too familiar, and that’s not even taking into account that Cooper has already essentially played this character in the short-lived TV series Kitchen Confidential. (“Fame. Success. Money. He partied it all away. Now, this chef is getting a second chance…”) Obstacles are set up only to be circumvented in the easiest possible ways, and it ends exactly where you’d expect it to.

A character suggests that even though chefs can’t improve a recipe it’s their job to try. It’s something of a defeatist attitude, but you have to at least credit Burnt for acknowledging the supposed futility of trying to improve upon a very formulaic story and then succeeding in that failure.

The Upside: Bradley Cooper’s balance of ego and fragility; Sienna Miller does good work with very little; some laughs

The Downside: Too straightforward and obvious; character traits feel flat and forced; wastes some talented actors including Alicia Vikander, Daniel Bruhl, Emma Thompson, and Matthew Rhys

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.