Burnt fails as a character study, but thrives when bringing the fast-moving world of professional chefs to cinematic life.
Burnt stars Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones, a two-star Michelin rockstar chef who has spent the last couple of years getting clean and chucking oysters in New Orleans, after he all but destroyed his career as a Parisian chef with his drug abuse and reckless behavior in the workplace. However, Adam is ready to go for that coveted third Michelin star and intends to do so by starting over in London, with the help of his (at first, unwilling) old acquaintance; the maître d’ Tony (Daniel Brühl).
Adam thus sets out assembling a kitchen crew that includes promising up and comers like Chef Helene (Sienna Miller), along with a pair of his former coworkers: Chef Michel (Omar Sy), whom Adam stabbed in the back in Paris years ago, and Chef Max (Riccardo Scamarcio), who’s fresh out of prison. However, as the pressure mounts and Adam is faced with both fresh challenges in his present as well as lingering problems from his past, even Adam begins to wonder if he will be able to reclaim his former glory… or if he is on the verge of fully burning out at last.
Burnt, as scripted by Oscar-nominee Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Pawn Sacrifice) and based on a screen story by Michael Kalesniko (Iron Sky), is an engaging and compelling piece of storytelling during the scenes where it examines the creative, yet nerve-wracking and extremely demanding nature of the chef profession – thanks to the involvement of the real-life chefs who consulted on the movie (more on them later). However, similar to other films about the culinary world that have been released in recent years (see Jon Favreau’s Chef and Pixar’s Ratatouille), Burnt largely focuses on its protagonist’s various relationships and how they affect or reflect his art – and it’s with this aspect that the movie falls flat.
The problem is that Burnt has too many relationship subplots (and characters in general) than it can do justice by, over the course of its relatively slender running time. It’s possible that either an earlier cut of the movie or Knight’s initial script draft included more character development, but the final storyline put on-screen is (pardon the pun) under-cooked and incorporates a number of plot threads that aren’t fully realized – resulting in derivative narrative payoffs with limited emotional impact. Burnt features a number of engaging standalone scenes, but the connective tissue between them is flimsy and give rise to a serviceable, yet rather conventional narrative about a talented jerk who gets a shot at redemption.
In terms of direction, Burnt helmsman John Wells (August: Osage County) has deliver a movie that is overall visually pleasing thanks to solid cinematography by his frequent collaborator, Adriano Goldman, and in particular the fancy dishes and deserts on display – aided by the film’s chef consultants, Gordon Ramsey and Marcus Wareing. Editor Nick Moore (Love Actually, Morning Glory) carefully assembles the movie’s footage of the chefs in action (which is largely composed of close-ups) into rapidly-moving and effective montages, capturing the crackling energy of the professional kitchen environment. The scenes in between those cooking sequences are less impressively staged, but Burnt makes for solid “Foodie Porn” all the same.
Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones is a very Gordon Ramsey-esque individual; he even has a memorable scene where he tears down his fellow chefs for their flaws, Ramsey-style. The Oscar-nomineee delivers a solid performance here, but it’s not enough to compensate for Adam’s by-the-numbers character arc in Burnt. Similarly, while Sienna Miller does fine work playing the strong-willed Chef Helene and enjoys the same good screen chemistry with Cooper here as she did in American Sniper, the character is little more than a glorified love interest archetype, when all is said and done. Character actors Daniel Brühl (Rush) and Omar Sy (Jurassic World), by comparison, just aren’t given enough room to form into fully-realized personalities with their roles, given the sheer number of characters in Burnt.
Adam’s scenes with other people in Burnt are designed to provide more insight into his character, be it directly through dialogue – like his scenes with Tony’s therapist, Dr. Rosshilde (Emma Thompson), who is responsible for making sure that Adam stays clean – or more subtly, like during his interactions with the people from his past, such as his longtime rival Reece (Matthew Rhys), the people who work in Adam’s kitchen, and/or Adam’s ex-girlfriend and daughter of his mentor, Anne Marie (Alicia Vikander). Thing is, most of these side characters aren’t onscreen long enough to accomplish that goal – and they only leave an impression thanks to the talented people playing them.
It’s for these reasons that Burnt fails as a character study, but thrives when bringing the fast-moving world of professional chefs to cinematic life. There are indeed signs that a significant chunk of Burnt‘s substance was left on the cutting room floor (see also the curiously brief appearances by recognizable actors like Uma Thurman and Lily James), but either way the narrative put onscreen is just too thinly-sketched and overstuffed with more plot threads that it can properly develop.
However, if all you’re really interested in is seeing fancy dishes stylishly assembled on the big screen, then Burnt is worth a look at some point down the line – just not necessarily in theaters.
Burnt is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 101 minutes long and is Rated R for language throughout.
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