“You lack arrogance,” enfant terrible Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) accuses Dan (Sam Keeley), a talented but unseasoned London chef, in the opening stages of “Burnt.” What works in Jones’ soon-to-open upscale restaurant, however, is also what sinks director John Wells’ ghastly fine-dining drama, the arrogance of which is wholly unearned. Rather, “Burnt” mimics the worst imaginable kitchen disaster: acrid in the beginning, sickly sweet at the end, and overdone all the way through.
Jones, a former junkie “washed up” in New Orleans after achieving culinary stardom in Paris years before, is an insufferable prick, and not a particularly interesting one. Raging against his staff (including Omar Sy and love interest Sienna Miller), his preening rival (Matthew Rhys), his only friend, Tony (Daniel Brühl), and the injustice of imperfection itself, he’s more caricature than character—a cross between the Gordon Ramsay of “Hell’s Kitchen” and the smuggest manchildren of “Chopped,” following a narrative arc no less formulaic. After Jones assumes control of Tony’s hotel restaurant, with a ruse involving Uma Thurman in a brief cameo as the Evening Standard’s food critic, the usual trials and tribulations follow, culminating in a pair of cheap twists related to Jones’ desperate quest for an elusive third Michelin star.
The result, besides the embarrassment of tortured-genius clichés in Steven Knight’s script (from a story by Michael Kalesniko), is—perhaps even worse—a distinctly retrograde reverence for haute cuisine that leaches every last ounce of pleasure from cooking and eating. Though several critics have praised cinematographer Adriano Goldman’s pristine images of Jones’ perfectly composed plates, overseen by consultant Mario Batali, the sleek camerawork in fact contributes to the film’s almost masochistic chill. Speeding from dish to dish, “Burnt” precludes the viewer from savoring any of the tasty morsels on display, and the sensual side of the culinary arts simply fades away. “Burnt” scarcely compares to “Julie & Julia” on this front, much less “Eat Drink Man Woman” or “Babette’s Feast.”
An Instagram snapshot of our complex relationships with food rather than a satisfying meal, “Burnt,” like Jones, ultimately allows its arrogance to cloud its judgment so thoroughly that even the few fleet-footed sequences of the kitchen staff’s dinnertime ballet can do nothing to salvage it. For a film whose protagonist compares cooking to the messiness of sex, or art, “Burnt” is maddeningly antiseptic, sanding away the sharp edges of what we call taste until all that’s left is gruel. “The imperfection of human relationships… of others, yourself,” as Tony’s analyst (Emma Thompson) diagnoses Jones’ foremost fear, is the very aspect of successful storytelling that the film can’t seem to bring to a boil. In the cinema as in the kitchen, it turns out, perfection all too easily becomes the enemy of the good, and “Burnt” is no better than hot garbage.
Read other critics’ reviews below:
Eric Kohn, Indiewire:
“While technically directed by John Wells, ‘Burnt’ has little cinematic identity beyond the occasional luscious images of food that grace the screen in hunger-inducing close-ups. To that end, the real star of the show may be cinematographer Adriano Goldman, though in an era of ubiquitous reality cooking shows, that feat alone can hardly carry a feature-length narrative.”
Jon Frosch, The Hollywood Reporter:
“Glib, sloppy and shamelessly clichéd, it’s a middling vehicle for its charismatic leading man Bradley Cooper, who sweats and swears up a storm as a disgraced chef orchestrating a comeback. Cooper can do this kind of arrogant-but-irresistible golden boy shtick in his sleep, but that doesn’t make it any less pleasurable to watch. Flashing his baby blues and a fiery temper, the actor gives a fully engaged performance that almost makes us want to forgive the movie’s laziness. Almost.”
Justin Chang, Variety:
“Far from being a glorious portrait of the artist as a young cook, ‘Burnt’ devolves into an angst-ridden melodrama of relapse and recovery,
where no amount of gastronomical window dressing can disguise the
familiar spectacle of one very gifted man behaving very badly.”
Tim Grierson, Screen:
“[E]very thoughtful story beat and every well-observed character moment happens with such predictability and slick professionalism that the whole project seems smothered in bland sweetness. Ironically for a film about a daredevil who wants to challenge his customers, ‘Burnt’ mostly plays it safe.”