Directed by: John Wells
Premise: A celebrity chef (Bradley Cooper) who has recovered from drug abuse takes a job with a top London restaurant with the intent of rebuilding his career and redeeming himself.
What Works: Movies about professional cooks are similar to movies about sports; they have to put the audience in the world of the chef, capture the drama of the kitchen, and make it accessible to viewers who don’t share that interest or background. For the most part, Burnt succeeds at that. The sequences in the kitchen have a furious energy brought on by cropped images and fast editing. Burnt also features some strong central performances. Bradley Cooper plays the lead role and the film draws on many of the actor’s strengths. Cooper frequently plays intense characters who are charming but also wicked. That is the case here. Cooper’s character is frequently arrogant and awful and it is difficult to keep the audience on the side of someone who treats his underlings this way. But Cooper generally accomplishes that, if not keeping the audience on his side then at least keeping them engaged with his performance. Sienna Miller plays a sous chef who is recruited to assist Cooper’s character. Miller holds her own in Cooper’s presence and the rapport she develops with him over the course of the movie is organic and gives Burnt some needed levity. Also impressive is Daniel Bruhl as the restaurant manager. Bruhl and Cooper’s characters share a chaotic history and their performances make that history palatable.
What Doesn’t: While Burnt puts the audience in the immediate drama of the kitchen, it does not create stakes that are interesting and involving. For those who’ve watched any of the various reality-television kitchen competitions, much of Burnt is familiar. Like many of those programs, Burnt centers on an arrogant chef who spends much of his time obsessing over minutia and verbally abusing his staff. The drama of Burnt rests on whether Cooper’s character can get his next Michelin star and he is prepared to destroy anyone in his kitchen who gets in the way of that goal. But there are no concrete stakes hinging on the acquisition of that star and in that respect the movie fails the other important facet of occupational stories. Just as sports movies must make the competition about something deeper than scoring points and winning games, Burnt has to make the act of cooking and achieving a great rating about something more than its surface value. But the filmmakers don’t really accomplish that. There is an attempt but whenever the characters pontificate on the culinary arts it comes across as pretentious twaddle. There is the potential to do something devastating in the movie; the protagonist has a history of self-destructive behavior but the film deals with substance abuse in a facile way that trivializes the struggle for sobriety. The story includes a clever twist that by all rights viewers ought to see coming but probably won’t because of skillful misdirection by the filmmakers. Had Burnt concluded with this twist it would have been a much better movie. But instead the filmmakers force Burnt to adhere to a redemptive plotline. Aside from coming across disingenuous, the movie suffers from its Hollywood ending because Bradley Cooper is more interesting to watch when he is obsessive and angry and less interesting as he becomes a more reasonable person. And while Cooper is the star, Burnt is also full of other recognizable actors who are given nothing to do. Recognizable players such as Alicia Vikander, Lily James, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson, and Omar Sy are cast in what amount to cameos. In several cases these characters are linked to subplots that contribute nothing to the story or set up themes and ideas that are never pursued to a conclusion.
Bottom Line: Burnt is an average movie. It suffers from a story that is unfocused and cliché. The movie has the potential to be daring but it is compromised by capitulating itself to populist feel-good entertainment.
Episode: #569 (November 15, 2015)