I’m going to get these out of the way fast. “Burnt” is a carefully constructed but undercooked drama of a film, crafted out of heavily seasoned empty calories that leave the viewer partially satisfied, but hungry for something more substantial. The characters, especially Bradley Cooper’s genius but erratic hothead, are over-talked and half-baked, paired with mouthwatering food porn montages that whip around in an effort to impress but ultimately prove more flash than flavor. Alright, fun over.
More seriously, “Burnt” is a film with a lot of potential. Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook”) is a fallen mastermind of a chef, whose tumultuous life of drugs, alcohol and women in Paris has dragged him to ruin. After getting clean, he moves to London looking for culinary redemption in the form of a coveted three star Michelin rating. But, to reestablish himself in the high-stakes, high-class world of culinary virtuosity, he must reconnect with lost friends and competitors to put together an expert kitchen staff and regain the respect of his community.
An engrossing story and well-balanced cast, however, are not all that make a movie, something that director John Wells (“The Company Men”) seems both overly aware of and not sure of at all. Cooper’s manic, Gordon Ramsey-esque Adam Jones is a rock star whose passion borders on caricature. His screaming, crying, throwing and walking really, really dramatically in a leather jacket and shades adds up to almost nothing in the end: a predictably intense character with a tortured mind we can just barely begin to understand. Cooper’s significant moments, cooking for another chef’s daughter or staying up late to look for the perfect cut of fish, are snuck in between these melodramatic episodes, almost mistakenly carrying the film in their subtlety. In this same vein, the script twirls small moments of authenticity out of the kitchen staff’s behind-the-scenes camaraderie or talk of the now-established chefs’ rough beginnings in more famous restaurants. However, it is rare that these moments are not followed by an explicit and overwrought branch of explanatory dialogue, stopping much of this emotional success in its tracks. The film seems unsure of the strength of these restrained but successful overlaps of writing and cast, filling possible breathing room with needless intensity.
In this intensity, though, “Burnt” is not a standalone story. From “Hell’s Kitchen” to “Chef,” cooking TV shows and movies are turning away from the idea of the kitchen as a warm, feminine space to characterizing chefs as masculine artists who will do anything to get to the top. Chefs are no longer the Julia Child-like providers but unpredictable, tortured rock stars. The blue flame of a burner, the clean swipe of a knife through meat, a kaleidoscopic array of freshly chopped fruit and the final precise dip of spoon to plate are all captured in “Burnt” with an artistic reverence, flicked through with the rhythmic intensity of any music video. Although Sienna Miller’s (“American Sniper”) Helene, a chef working under Adam Jones, steps up with a formidable toughness apart from the typical idea of cooking as a feminine means of provision. But she is shown multiple times making breakfast for her daughter in the mornings and acts almost as a bridge between these opposite interpretations of kitchen space. This doesn’t mean she’s his equal, though, and like the scores of women before her, falls under the spell of Adam Jones’s womanizing sway.
Playing into the culinary rock star genre, “Burnt” does little to expand on the masculinization of the kitchen other than add another screaming, heated voice to the chorus. Although the cast and general plot have potential, the film flounders in its moments of self-doubt, overshadowing its most powerful moments with heavy-handed intensity.