by Lee Purvey
In the age of the biopic, American cinema’s obsession with the agents of greatness has never been clearer. Whether it’s the latest iteration of Steve Jobs or a president that’s been dead for a century and a half, “great men” are (somewhat disturbingly) in.
On the big screen, the collateral damage of these great lives is as important as their triumphs. The mental health of a young man in last year’s Whiplash, paternal duty in the brand new Steve Jobs, the money of a thousand schmucks in The Wolf of Wall Street -- these are the lambs to be sacrificed on the altar of success, as defined under late capitalism. The trouble with Burnt, the latest example of this subgenre, is that the stakes are so vaguely defined, the story so poorly executed that its casualties seem more the products of cruelty than necessary sacrifices to the cult of exceptionalism.
Director: John Wells
Producers: Stacey Sher, Erwin Stoff
Writers: Steven Knight, Michael Kalesniko (story)
Cinematographer: Adriano Goldman
Editor: Nick Moore
Music: Rob Simonsen
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl, Riccardo Scamarcio, Omar Sy, Sam Keeley, Sam Keeley, Matthew Rhys, Stephen Campbell Moore, Emma Thompson, Uma Thurman, Lexi Benbow-Hart, Alicia Vikander, Lily James
US Theatrical Release: October 30, 2015
US Distributor: The Weinstein Company
The problem may well be Bradley Cooper. As early as 2005, when he appeared as old money playboy Sack Lodge in Wedding Crashers, Cooper has shown a canny ability for playing nutjob narcissists -- characters that still sometimes worm their way into your heart through some blend of wily charisma and sheer persistence. This quality was best deployed in American Hustle and The Place Beyond the Pines, two films in which Cooper plays cops willing to do anything for success; it was at its worst in last year’s hateful American Sniper.
It’s no surprise that up until American Sniper Cooper has rarely been found without a talented ensemble cast to support him. The common throughline of Cooper’s roles is their stubborn cluelessness and the actor needs a strong dramatic counterweight for this kind of character to work -- not so much a straight man as someone willing and able to engage Cooper’s neurotic ballistics with a straight face: think Jennifer Lawrence’s equally nuts Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook or Christian Bale’s unflappable Irving in American Hustle. Cooper’s never had any trouble conveying a character’s flaws. He can easily make you hate him, but he’s been lucky enough to have the handling (from directors David O. Russell or Derek Cianfrance) and supporting cast to eventually emerge redeemed, or at least relatable. Having toed the line of audience antipathy for most of his career, in Burnt Cooper finally lacks the help to save him from his own overcommitment to idiocy.
Which is to say Cooper’s Adam Jones -- a disgraced all-star chef making a late-career stab at redemption -- is an irredeemable ass. Loud, bullying, and egotistical, Burnt’s culinary maestro is as stingy with credit as he is brutal with criticism, hurling plates and expletives at the tile walls of his kitchen with an infantile fury that quickly approaches the comical. Obviously, Cooper means to convey “passion,” here playing into the “culinary bad boy” mythos perpetrated by TV personalities like Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain. But there are only so many times you can watch the Mean Green Bradley Cooper Machine rumbling into action for another weirdly unscored (and way too method) back-of-house tantrum, before you just start to feel embarrassed for the guy.
There’s a reason he has a chip on his shoulder. Expelled three years earlier from the glorious heights of Parisian cuisine following a mythical descent into drugs and ego, we meet Adam as he completes a self-ascribed penance, shucking a million clams in a seedy New Orleans kitchen (as he logs scrupulously in his Moleskine with masturbatory grandstanding). The drugs and women are gone, but the ego’s still very much intact and, set on the immediate resumption of his culinary reign, Adam is back on the other side of the pond in no time, now in London, where his old maître d’ Tony (Daniel Brühl) runs a restaurant. Having successfully tricked and bullied his former colleague into placing him in charge of a kitchen, Adam sets out to earn the three-star restaurant review in the prestigious Michelin Guide that he never received back in Paris.
Longtime TV producer John Wells (ER, The West Wing) recently made the leap to feature directing with 2010’s The Company Men and his 2013 follow-up August: Osage County, but with his third feature the Hollywood veteran seems to think he’s back on the small screen. Paralleling its cliché of a protagonist, the film’s mise-en-scène invokes generic cooking-show editing in much the same way as 2010’s The Trip, but with a dreary reverence to the culinary performance instead of that excellent film’s dry, tangential wit.
This genre-blending is about as adventurous as Wells gets, the operative storytelling mode here being montage -- montage after montage after montage, this oldest of narrative crutches apparently the only way to inject any sort of movement into a film with plot points this bland. Thus, the story’s first third harkens back to the worst of Guy Ritchie’s ‘00s, as Adam assembles a motley gang of culinary outlaws, bearing only the most cursory gestures towards characterization: David (Sam Keeley) is the awkward youth, Max (Riccardo Scamarcio) just got out of jail, Michel (Omar Sy) rides a motorcycle. Slightly more important among these backgrounders is Helene (Sienna Miller, who -- at the rasping exhortation of Clint Eastwood’s corpse -- managed to condense the infinite complexity of American feminine experience into a hideous archetype of the lowest common denominator as Cooper’s love interest in American Sniper). Miller’s performance here is equally uninspired, as she successfully transposes the blandness of her American Sniper character, Taya Kyle, to a British sous chef with one of those funky haircuts where they shave off the back. As a romance improbably develops between the explosive head chef and the straight-shooting single mother, Helene helps Adam adapt his old-school style to the changing world of high cuisine while trying to coax him out of his shell of hardcore self-reliance.
Indeed, as we’re led to believe through a series of way-too-sensible-for-this-movie diagnoses from Adam’s pseudo-therapist (Emma Thompson), this story isn’t so much about being the best as it is about letting go of that need for perfection, of learning to accept help. Unfortunately, Burnt wants to have its cake and eat it too, holding its intolerable protagonist’s hand through the most tepid and unconvincing redemption story this side of Gravity. This failure is partially due to the embarrassingly low stakes of the whole thing -- two stars . . . three stars . . . who cares! -- but mostly Burnt is just too busy slobbering over its hero to waste time establishing what makes him so special in the first place.
Make no mistake, this film isn’t about food (its hodgepodge of buzzy descriptors make Under the Tuscan Sun sound like Tolstoy) but about Adam Jones, and boy, if people can’t get enough of the guy. Not only is the seemingly down-to-earth Helene enchanted by her boss’ crass egotism. Adam basks equally in the unrequited adoration of his smitten maître d’; convinces Uma Thurman’s hard-as-tacks food critic to abandon her preference for the same sex and hop into bed with him; lets his snubbed ex-lover (Alicia Vikander) pay off his drug debts; and gets to hear his greatest enemy in the culinary world (Matthew Rhys) thank him for his willingness to “lead us to other places we wouldn’t go.” The people of Burnt Town apparently love Adam Jones, leaving the rest of us to wonder: what are we missing?
A film whose offensiveness is only undercut by its comical ineptitude, Burnt offers the kind of white male aggrandizing we should have outgrown with Fight Club. The difference between Wells’ film and David Fincher’s anarcho-erotic opus is that Cooper just doesn’t have the chops to pull this thing off. Depending on a star who thrives on opposition, Burnt is way too ready to let Adam Jones have things his way.