Foodie film ‘Burnt’ is a half-baked leftover
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
Oh, how I love and curse foodie culture. On the plus side, it keeps me busy writing about chefs and trends and events, because people are suddenly interested in what they put in their bodies. On the down side, celebrichefs like Gordon Ramsay have cultivated an enfant terrible temperament that suggests greatness in the kitchen can only be achieved by being a short-tempered perfectionist.
There are actually several lines in Burnt, the new chef-as-brilliant-anti-hero movie with Bradley Cooper, where the main character, Adam Jones, insists you have to be an arrogant asshole to be a good cook. The proof? All the cooks in the film are arrogant assholes. Q.E.D. But it’s just more of the same self-aggrandizing mystique forced onto a situation. If chefs threw plates at the walls of their kitchens as often in real life as they do in the movies, we’d all be picking porcelain chips out of our frisee salads.
There’s some initial promise to Burnt, or at least a hope that it might go in an interesting direction. As it starts, Adam is in a self-imposed exile. After having conquered Paris as a two-Michelin-star chef, he allowed drug addiction, bridge-burning and whoring to send him on a downward spiral. He disappeared three years before the action, sentencing himself to shuck one million oysters in a seafood shack in New Orleans before allowing himself a shot at redemption. (Sorry, by the way, but my math doesn’t show how anyone could shuck that many bivalves in such a short time. And he really should wear a glove if he doesn’t want to lose a finger.) Adam then rushes off to London and, in a manner more reminiscent of a heist film than one about a chef, reassembles the ol’ gang (“you’re the best saucier in the biz, pal — come work for me and I’ll make you a star!”) to build the best kitchen in the world … and finally get his long-desired third Michelin star. (Just why two stars aren’t sufficient — and why he won’t eventually want more anyway — is never explained.)
You think this may really be a redemption story about someone who has actually changed his ways, instead of merely refocussing his temper sans lines of cocaine, but no, Adam is still the same dick he always was. And yet, everyone eventually forgives him. Genius gets a pass, it seems — even when there are other geniuses who don’t break all the china.
The director, John Wells, is the completely wrong person to helm this picture. He allows idiotic lines (such as when Adam says he wants to cook food that “makes people stop eating”) land comically when they aren’t meant to; he also violates the primary rule that fuels foodie culture: The idea of savoring a dish. The camera never lingers on any of the plates; Wells edits Burnt like a boxing picture, not one that appreciates the tender beauty of a fine meal.
Cooper gives a solid if not totally convincing performance, and Daniel Bruhl, as the gay restaurant owner not-so-secretly in love with Adam, adds an aching tenderness, but Uma Thurman (as a lesbian dining critic) is wasted when her character disappears for no good reason. No chef should whet your appetite for something delicious then fail to deliver it; the same is true for movies.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 30, 2015.