2015, R, 111 mins.
2015, R, 111 mins.
Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones / Sienna Miller as Helene / Lily James as Sara / Alicia Vikander as Anne Marie / Uma Thurman as Simone / Emma Thompson as Dr. Rosshilde / Matthew Rhys as Reece / Daniel Brühl as Tony / Sarah Greene as Kaitlin / Omar Sy as Michel / Sam Keeley as David
Directed by John Wells / Written by Steven Knight
is the type of film that begs one simple question:
Can a film that
has a deeply narcissistic and wholeheartedly dislikeable lead character
still be entertaining to sit through?
Wells (AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY)
is certainly no stranger to helming dramas that are populated by personas
that you sometimes want to slap across the face.
His new film BURNT (from LOCKE
writer Steven Wright, also familiar with dealing with characters with
questionable and loose morals) is set in the maliciously cutthroat
European world of the culinary arts.
It’s about a once promising American chef that – due to his own
hubris and incalculably bad choices in life – has hit proverbial rock
bottom and now must retake his claim as being one of the finest chefs
around. BURNT, in some ways,
is about an underdog overcoming odds to achieve success, but in this case
the underdog in question is, for the most part, an intrinsically unsavory
human being at his core. Very
little effort is made for audiences to truly like this individual…more
often than not, you almost want to root him on to failure.
Yet, that’s what makes BURNT kind of compelling: It’s a fairly
intimate portrait of an a-hole that knows he’s an a-hole, and the film
in a dynamically fierce performance by Bradley Cooper that keeps the whole
production energized throughout.
(Cooper) is a jerk. But he’s an inordinately talented jerk when it comes to
being a chef. He was once a
mega-star of the culinary scene in Paris…that is until he allowed
addictions to drugs and alcohol to get in the way, which all but robbed
him of his career and livelihood. He
spent over two years doing penance in New Orleans doing petty and
degrading work de-shelling oysters at a local market.
Feeling fully recharged and revitalized, Adam decides to return to
Europe, London specifically, to try to reclaim his long lost career and
reputation. Realizing that he
has many enemies in the field to conquer (like a local rival in Reece, played
well by Matthew Rhys), Adam sets his sights on a restaurant run by an old
friend Tony (Daniel Bruhl) in hopes of resurrecting it back to three star
status in the hallowed Michelin Red Guide, which essentially is the go-to
source for the best restaurants and hotels in Europe.
Tony gives Adam a shot and essentially hands over the reigns of his
kitchen to him, after which time Adam begins to seek out just the right
people to fill his staff to ensure three star success.
Slowly, but surely, Adam begins to build a crack team that includes
Helene (Sienna Miller), a single down-on-her-luck mother that initially
doesn’t want to have anything to with the incessantly arrogant Adam,
but eventually acquiesces to his request (doubling her old job’s salary
also helped). While dealing
with the stresses of ensuring that his kitchen and crew are whipped up
into shape for the challenge ahead, Adam must also report to Dr. Rosshilde
(Emma Thompson) to ensure that he remains sober and clean throughout. As pressures both external and internal begin to mount, Adam
starts to understand that pursuing the fabled three star rating may be something
that’s out of his grasp. That,
and his crew, for the most part, despises him.
being exquisite food porn, is at its strongest when it focuses on the
stressful and hectic microcosm that is Adam’s kitchen.
One thing that Wells does with a stark immediacy is ground viewers
in the oftentimes furious pace and intensity of restaurant kitchen life,
during which time the slightest error on anyone’s part can make the
difference between a three star meal and a zero star one.
Adam is the epicenter of hostility in this environment, literally
hurling out f-bomb riddled insults at his underlines when he’s not
literally hurling food and dishes at them out of disgust.
What’s ultimately fascinating about BURNT is how it shows people
around Adam being simultaneously hypnotized and drawn into his world while
being repelled by the very sight of him.
They both respect him and hate his guts.
But again, BURNT
is not trying to make Adam a figure of easy hero worship.
The film is, I think, trying to make us get into the headspace of a
brilliant hothead that is indeed a genius at what he does, even though one
of this biggest character flaws is his inability to allow for the
inclusion of new cooking ideas and methodologies into his already narrow
mindset. All of this is
immensely supported by the tireless and focused performance by Cooper, who
just might be one of the very few mainstream actors working today that is
capable of making vile characters oddly endearing enough to
watch. Of course, Cooper is
not really stretching any acting muscles here playing his ultra
conceited golden boy that thinks that the whole world is against him. Yet, he’s so fully committed in his role with such a
go-for-broke/throw-caution-to-the-wind vigor that it becomes rather
intoxicating to watch as the film progresses.
He is eerily convincing all throughout BURNT and single-handedly carries the film.
liked some of the supporting performances as well, especially Brule’s
crafty work as his gay maître d’ that’s a bit more textured and
tricky to pull off beyond first impressions. Sienna Miller is also a headstrong presence in the film
(re-teaming with Cooper again after last year’s AMERICAN
SNIPER) and she's one of only a handful of actresses that can
stand toe-to-toe with Cooper and dish it out as good as he does.
It’s somewhat sad, though, that Miller’s character is somewhat
marginalized as a manufactured love interest for Adam, which, when it
boils right down to it, comes really out of no where (as to what she
actually sees in this man as a potential suitor is beyond me and something
that the screenplay never explains).
The film has many other underwritten characters, like Emma
Thompson’s doctor, a role that could have been excised from the film
altogether, not to mention that some subplots (like one featuring an old
drug debt that Adam must pay back or risk bodily harm) adds very little to
the actual proceedings.
That, and we’ve certainly seen the narrative and thematic beats that BURNT engages in before: self-loathing heel that finds redemption (been there, done that). However, and much like the chefs that work under Adam, I paradoxically found myself immersed in the vortex of this film despite its negligible qualities. Even though it pales in comparison to the similarly structured CHEF from last year (a deeply underrated Jon Favreau film with more heart and soul than what’s on display here), I nevertheless recommend BURNT as a fairly involving and thanklessly acted expose on celebrity chef culture. Adam is an irrepressible SOB, to be sure, but that doesn’t inherently make for bad or boring drama.
Oh, and don’t go into this film hungry