Never let it be said that Bradley Cooper doesn’t love his food. Or at least he likes playing those who make really good food, especially if they turn out to be complete jerks. A decade ago he starred in the short-lived Fox series “Kitchen Confidential”, playing a character based loosely on the well-traveled Anthony Bourdain. And now he’s back with the culinary dramedy “Burnt”, an overcooked morsel that mimics another Fox cooking series: “Hell’s Kitchen”.
Perhaps that’s because “Hell’s Kitchen”‘s brazen, arrogant masterchef Gordon Ramsay serves as a consultant on “Burnt”, but somebody should have told him his plate-smashing, sh*t-talking antics are only cool on reality TV. They don’t necessarily make for the most sympathetic central character, no matter how delicious his Foie Gras may be. Cooper plays Adam Jones, a bad boy chef who conquered Paris and earned two vaunted Michelin stars. But he ultimately flamed out in a whirl of alcohol, sex, and drugs, leaving his career behind to schuck oysters in New Orleans. However, he’s done paying his penance and is ready to earn that elusive third Michelin star, but the only way he can do that is by living a clean life and making amends with the people he screwed over. As he’s warned soon after, there will be no shortage of people lining up to kill him if he starts a new restaurant.
The first half of “Burnt” is actually quite engaging as Jones recruits an all-star team of old friends and former enemies to achieve his goal. Omar Sy is sous chef Michel, Sam Keely is fresh-faced newbie David, Sienna Miller as the rising star Helene, and Daniel Bruhl as maitre’d Tony, the lovelorn son of Jones’ mentor. It’s a group that should be able to accomplish anything, if only Jones’ maniacally obsessive and downright evil behavior doesn’t get in the way, which of course it does. He’s absolutely horrid to the people around him, putting his need for perfection above anything and anyone. In one particularly ghastly scene, when he believes the Michelin judges are dining at the restaurant, he berates his team to the point of scary physical aggression.
Screenwriter Steven Knight, usually pretty reliable, spins a number of plates but never finds a good balance, until they all ultimately come crashing to the floor. Jones’ creative madness is touched upon in broad strokes, but never fully explored, not even during his weekly “therapy” sessions with Dr. Rosshilde (Emma Thompson). There’s also Jones’ frequent run-ins with the violent thugs he owes money to, and a pair of potential romances with Helene, and his former flame (Alicia Vikander) who was with him during the downward spiral. There’s also his ongoing beef with an old rival who has already achieved a third Michelin star, a fact which drives Jones to the brink of foodie insanity. Too many of these potentially interesting plotlines are left sitting at the pass getting cold, while others, like Helene’s plight as a single mother, are occasionally reheated like a burger from Wendy’s. Speaking of which, the best conversation that takes place has Jones breaking down the reasons why foodies turn up their nose at fast food, and it all has to do with perception. It’s a great moment of culinary insight that tantalizes on the tongue all too briefly.
There’s also the sense that a great deal of the film was chopped up to within an inch of its life in the editing booth. Whether that was the decision made by director John Wells or someone above him, there’s a lot of haphazard cutting of scenes and subplots. Uma Thurman has maybe two scenes early on as a prominent food critic, and we’re led to believe she’s going to be a key figure in Jones’ career resurgence. Not really. A greater attention to detail is paid to the food itself than the people actually eating it.
The redemptive journey “Burnt” takes us on has momentary bursts of flavor, but it never makes for the truly satisfying meal someone like Jones would demand.