A film review by Craig J. Koban November 13, 2015

BURNT jjj
 

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

BURNT 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? 

Director John 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 is carried in a dynamically fierce performance by Bradley Cooper that keeps the whole production energized throughout. 

Adam Jones (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.   

 

 

Begrudgingly, 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.   

BURNT, beyond 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. 

I 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

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