Talents that can impose a vast amount of order on chaos often require a heavily disordered personality. Alcoholism often figures in the mix. Reams of world-class authors, composers, artists … the list is well-known by now. Such is the nature of paradox.
The human tongue has as wide a range of sensual variety as the colors on an artist’s palette. Probably no coincidence “palate” and “palette” sound the same. But clearly, the palate’s sensory range offers the greater pleasure (to most). Somebody said, “Food is sex.” Maybe it was Confucius.
Which is why the restaurant business thrives; why chefs can be rock stars, and why some multiple-Michelin-star chefs have rock-star appetites for controlled substances.
Bradley Cooper plays one such two-star kitchen maestro, in the rather fun “Burnt.” His opening voice-over monologue, set to the blues mutterings of John Lee Hooker, goes something like, “God gave us oysters and apples. We can’t improve on them. But it’s our job to try.”
We meet Adam Jones (Cooper), shucking oysters in New Orleans, where his addiction demons chased him from Paris, he tells us, from the top of the food chain straight to the bottom. He’s been on a self-imposed, one-million-oyster-shucking penance for destroying his fast-lane chef life. Not very believable, but we’ll work with it.
Penance complete, he’s soon in London, bound and determined (no more drugs, booze, or women) to get that elusive third star on his résumé. Let the kitchen team auditions and the Machiavellian (but fun) manipulations begin.
The Gang’s All Here
Adam tracks down a former colleague Tony (Daniel Brühl, who played Nicki Lauda in “Rush”). Tony’s the “best maître d’ in the business,” currently working at his dad’s London hotel.
Adam informs Tony to step aside, for he, Adam, shall now be in charge, and furthermore he’ll be using Tony’s dad’s hotel as the staging ground to get his third star. Tony’s at first not at all happy, but later acquiesces—Adam’s the kind of guy whose coattails can successfully be ridden to success.
Adam’s getting the kitchen team he had in France back together again, using his legendary status along with whatever unscrupulous pressure he can bring to bear.
He still needs a sous-chef. What about the local, pretty blonde one, with the tiny chef-knife tattooed behind her ear (Sienna Miller)?
When the gang’s all assembled, it’s on to prepping for their big opening night. Soon follow the inevitable, cliché chef-tantrums; the throwing of all manner of cookware items and food, “If it’s not perfect, throw it out!!”
The sensuality of it all is fawned over, the farmers market shopping, the ingredient sniffing, the thumb-massaging of cuts of meat to determine a rarefied quality we mere mortals can’t access.
The Boogie Man
The necessary story component in all food movies from “Mystic Pizza” to “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is, of course, about when the dreaded food critic will arrive. In “Burnt” we’re told how the Michelin men will sneak up on the restaurant staff, and how to recognize them (“They’ll put a knife on the floor to see if you can spot it”).
Seen It All Before—Still Fun
While “Burnt” is predictable, and the terms “slick” and “feel-good” definitely apply, it’s still good watching. The most unfortunate thing is that we’ve been over-exposed to so much TV food prep, featuring braising, chopping, basting, and sizzling, that even though the sizzling food here is gourmet-level and artsy-colorful, one often has the subconscious suspicion one might be watching a Wendy’s commercial.
The love story (where there’s a food story there’s generally a love story) with Sienna Miller’s Helene is mildly ridiculous. No woman that good-looking and that talented, who can get a job anywhere she wants, is going to put up with being made to apologize to a dead fish in front of a group of her peers, and then fall in love with the verbally-abusive idiot. I pity the fool. It would have needed flashbacks to some kind of childhood hostage situation where she got Stockholm syndrome to explain this behavior. However, Sienna Miller is a heck of an actress and manages to sell it just enough so we can live with it.
At some point, especially when they think they’ve messed up their Michelin chances, there’s a contemplated jump off the Waterloo Bridge, followed by a drunken, pull-a-plastic-bag-over-his-head-and-try-to-die, followed by a being-comforted-by-former-rival (Matthew Rhys) scene.
At this juncture, one would really like Adam to get over himself and do another round of penance in Africa, helping single mothers make those mud pies, made of actual creamy mud (ah, the consistency), because famine is a good friend of the family. Adam—go make a million mud pies and stop acting like a baby!
The main thing that’s missing from the movie is the true change Adam would have had to go through to pull it all off. As mentioned, the intensely stressful chef life is often handled with drinking and/or cocaine, or, the opposite extreme of not only abstinence, but a powerful meditative discipline. But Adam’s only doing abstinence, which is why he’s also exhibiting “dry-drunk” behavior. As mentioned, this behavior would never attract that girl.
So, missing a real, built-in character arc, there’s only one reason this movie works—Bradley Cooper’s charm. That’s it. That’s a lot of charm to have! Go Bradley. It’s no small feat. It’s quite a fun movie, because Bradley Cooper’s charming. That’s a movie star for ya.
Director: John Wells
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Matthew Rhys, Emma Thompson, Uma Thurman, Alicia Vikander
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Release date: Oct. 30
Rated Not yet rated
3 stars out of 5