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Review: Bradley Cooper and Food Porn Can’t Save ‘Burnt’

Review: Bradley Cooper and Food Porn Can't Save 'Burnt'


READ MORE: ‘Burnt’ Pulled From Limited Release

Bradley Cooper’s charismatic screen presence has served him well, but in John Wells’ comedy-drama “Burnt” — in which the actor plays a famed London-based chef attempting to resurrect his career following a drug-fueled meltdown — it’s constantly out of sync with the material. Wandering through each scene with a steely-eyed gaze and unkempt facial hair, Cooper is like the Guy Fieri recipe for Anthony Bourdain: an enticing surface with no substance, much like the movie itself.

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.

And the one that “Burnt” offers up runs thin early on. When Adam Jones (Cooper) resurfaces on the London scene with intentions of launching a new restaurant, he’s got a lot of burnt bridges worth patching up. At first, he gains some momentum thanks to his formerly prestigious reputation (“He’s like the Mick Jagger of the cooking world,” explains one adoring fan) and manages to set up shop while rankling his local competition at an upscale eatery run by the pouty Reece (Matthew Rhys). They exchange terse and vulgar words about Adam’s ambition as the stage is set for a showdown. But “Burnt” never gets there, instead drifting through a series of set-ups that fail to reach any satisfactory outcome.

With longtime managerial partner Tony (Daniel Brühl) in tow, Adam builds a close-knit team of talented chefs, repairing a relationship with one former colleague (Omar Sy) and building a new one with a hardworking single mother (Sienna Miller) he plucks from a kitchen across town. The ensuing odyssey finds Adam barking orders at his kitchen staff, Gordon Ramsay-style, ultimately alienating everyone after his opening night turns sour. In the meantime, he dodges the advances of drug dealers to whom he owes a debt. This cycle of ambition, failure and fuck ups continues a few times throughout the movie until it basically fizzles in a stew of half-baked ideas.

Having gone through a few title changes, frantic re-edits and last-minute release date shifts, “Burnt” also bears the mark of too many cooks in the kitchen. There’s little in the way of cohesion to the screenplay — by the prolific Steven Knight, no less, who might be better off developing his directorial career (his captivating 2014 feature “Locke,” set within the confines of a car, makes you wonder if “Burnt” might have worked better set within the confines of a kitchen).

Strangely, the movie dwells more on Adam’s burly mannerisms than his actual cooking, which makes it hard to invest in his struggles. Goldman’s swirling camera does a capable job of capturing the chaos of the kitchen, but the food rarely gets its due. Dishes of scrumptious pasta, fish and various sauces look divine, but they never receive enough of a showcase to provide insight into Adam’s bonafide skill.

The best gag that “Burnt” offers up involves Adam’s recurring disgust over the use of “food condoms” to contain the flavor of his dishes, but he barely explains his own approach. Taking that skill for granted, “Burnt” shortchanges its most intriguing ingredient: the possibility that, in spite of his hard-partying antics, Adam harbors world-class abilities. “Burnt” takes their existence for granted.

That shortcoming is additionally hampered by the underdeveloped world surrounding him. “Burnt” veers from random cameos by Uma Thurman and Alicia Vikander as women that Adam bedded to one-note characters designed to support Adam’s mission. Brühl’s one-note helping hand, who harbors a longtime crush on Adam and fights to keep him stable, borders on homophobic parody; while Sy does his part to deepen his part, the story wastes him on a cheap plot twist.

As Adam’s eventual love interest, Miller stands out — though there’s something dispiriting about the way she simply melts into our hero’s arms like butter in a sizzling pan. These two actors do their best to generate legitimate romantic chemistry with underwhelming material, but “Burnt” gives them little to chew on aside from the usual scraps of undercooked material (and plenty of excuses for bad puns).

Veering from one underwhelming conflict to the next, the bland nature of the drama speaks to the diminishing returns of Wells’ film career. Together with “The Company Men” and “August, Osage County,” the new movie suggests this once-thriving television producer remains tethered to his roots. Rather than baking the movie in an engaging atmosphere or developing any real intrigue, he piles up one subplot after another, in search of any ingredient that might stick.

Worst of all, “Burnt” treads on far too familiar territory. Jon Favreau’s 2014 comedy “Chef,” in which he played a disgraced cook forced to start his career from scratch, was a cheekily amusing portrait of the risk and bravado afflicting the competitive food business. In “Burnt,” Cooper plays another formerly popular culinary maven recovering from his fall from grace, but trades the cheekiness of Favreau’s movie for self-serious prattle about Adam’s mounting midlife crisis.

No matter how zany his exploits — crashing with one of his young chefs, taking blows from thugs in dark alleys — “Burnt” never has fun with its scenario. Suffering through the mashup of delicious visuals and lame narrative, viewers may find themselves hankering for Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip,” a delightful two-hander featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon that nimbly shifts between food porn, the characters’ goofy impersonations that they offer up during meals and their genuine personal hangups.

Of course, “Burnt” focuses more on the cooks than their clients, but that material has also received better scrutiny elsewhere. Mario Batali served as a consultant here, but he actually cameos in “Bitter Feast,” Joe Maggio’s 2010 satire that transforms the extreme pettiness of the restaurant business into a wonderfully deranged black comedy. Above all, the high water mark of passionate cooking movies is “Ratatouille,” which illustrates the magical qualities of culinary experimentation for those obsessed with perfecting the process.

By contrast, “Burnt” deals less with the food itself than the way it drives Adam to the brink of insanity. Yet it falls short of generating any real urgency surrounding that situation. Adam’s search for success is particularly irksome in the context of a movie riddled by the same lost cause.

Grade: C-

“Burnt” opens nationwide on November 30.

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