In Pixar’s Oscar-winning, animated foodie flick “Ratatouille,” the villainous food critic Anton Ego is won over when he’s served something unexpected: a simple, sumptuous, glistening dish of, you guessed it, ratatouille. Anton takes one bite and is immediately whisked away to a deeply personal childhood memory of sitting at his mother’s table in the countryside for a meal. It wasn’t just good food the critic was eating, but something soul altering. And it’s this level of culinary alchemy that infamous chef Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) aspires to in “Burnt,” saying, “I want to make food that makes people stop eating.” It’s a big enough statement of intent to power an entire movie, however, the muddled and seemingly mangled drama makes Jones’s culinary target just one of the many narrative balls juggled in the air, in a picture that undercooks them all.
Kicking off with unnecessary voiceover (which never returns) explaining Adam’s past––all of which is reiterated in dialogue throughout the picture by the characters themselves––we learn the chef played with fire both professionally and personally. In his brief career he made it nearly to the top of his field, earning a two-star Michelin rating and name recognition. But he didn’t know a bridge he couldn’t burn, or a substance he couldn’t abuse, and one day he simply vanished from the scene altogether, going to New Orleans to shuck oysters and get clean. Having done what he deems his “penance,” Adam relocates to London with a single goal: making peace with the past, living clean, and achieving a three-star Michelin rating at a new restaurant.
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The first part of the picture is a familiar, not particularly inventive, but mildly engaging getting-the-gang together movie. To that end, Adam rounds up a crew: maitre’d extraordinaire Tony (Daniel Bruhl); former frenemy Michel (Omar Sy); protegé David (Sam Keeley); and secret weapon, Helene (Sienna Miller). Had “Burnt” simply stuck to Adam training his team, overcoming obstacles, and setting him on a path to redemption, it would’ve been an ordinary, but likely decent and enjoyable little movie. However, either due to an overstuffed script by the usually reliable Steven Knight (“Locke,” “Eastern Promises”), some savage editing which left a lot on the cutting room floor, or uncertain direction from John Wells (I suspect that it’s a mix of all three), “Burnt” soon has more plates on the pass than it can handle.
Bubbling at various corners of the main story is a thread that sees Adam visited a handful of times by drug dealers from his past, to whom he owes a large debt. There’s lip service paid to the difficulties of being a single mother in an industry that demands almost your every waking hour, transmitted through Helene, that’s eventually dispensed with when narratively necessary. There’s a one-sided romance that blooms from out of nowhere, but is also snipped quickly in the name of expediency. And remember that protegé? Well, after being hired, and aside from being yelled at a couple of times to remind the audience he’s still there, he’s largely forgotten until the last portion of the final act, which is hardly enough screen time for the arc “Burnt” earnestly tries to sell. Then there’s Dr. Rosshilde (Emma Thompson), who Adam has to take a weekly drug test from, as ordered by his investors. She happens to be a therapist, but Adam doesn’t do therapy or go to group, but you can see where this eventually winds up.
This all creates an air that feels hurried, incomplete, and disorganized; it’s not helped by the familiar faces who only have fleeting moments. I’m not sure Uma Thurman needed to be hired for two scenes to put on a British accent and play food critic, but I’m assuming her role was originally larger on the page. She’s introduced early on as being vital to Adam’s comeback plan, and part of his sordid history, but she’s never heard from again. Later in the picture, Alicia Vikander shows up for about three minutes as a significant figure from Adam’s past, but her appearance is so ephemeral it hardly makes an impact. Meanwhile, Riccardo Scamarcio, playing Max, is hired straight out of a stint in jail, and we’re made to understand he has a violent temper, but he spends the rest of the movie sweating in the background of the kitchen.
The film’s haphazard construction is made all the more frustrating because somewhere in this material is a much more resonant picture. “Burnt” often feels conflicted about the kind of movie it wants to be. In its far better and too few moments, Adam’s skill, arrogance, and confidence is his own worst enemy, and he’s a much more fascinating character for it. There are times when it looks like the movie is going to pivot toward something unexpected, with Adam learning a hard lesson about the inability to completely wipe the slate clean, and that past actions can sometimes affect an attempt at a new start. But these are often undone by scenes that quickly follow, and lead the proceedings to something far more blandly crowd-pleasing, and it’s a shame. Watching the movie, you can feel it continually pull toward the more interesting, unlikely outcome that doesn’t materialize.
Through all of this, it’s the cast who suffer the most, being at the mercy of a movie that is unable to find a clear focus. One centerpiece scene, in which Adam excoriates his staff after a calamitous opening night, has a seared and edgy energy the rest of the movie never matches. It’s the only moment in “Burnt” where suddenly everything about Adam and what he’s working toward seems truly uncertain. It’s the only time when one can question the loyalty of his staff, and what they’ll be willing to endure to go with him on this journey. While Cooper is very good through the entire movie, it’s in this scene where you get the sense of what might’ve attracted him to “Burnt” in the first place. Sadly, however, the scene is an anomaly. Meanwhile, the consistently underrated and very talented Miller is also very good, giving Helene a sturdy backbone to contend with the high demands placed on her by Adam, and nicely toeing the line between respecting and resenting the man she works for. And Bruhl manages to give some dimension to what is mostly a one-note role on the page.
There are a number of food puns that could be used to close off this review, but the biggest failing of “Burnt” is that it’s a missed opportunity. With so many reality shows venturing to take viewers behind-the-scenes of the restaurant business, “Burnt” had the potential of creating the kind of dramatized tapestry of the high stakes required for achievement that are never guaranteed in the restaurant business. Instead, Wells’ movie concludes on a more facile note, that success will only truly come when you learn to accept help from others. It’s the kind of conclusion one would expect to be reached by a contestant during an early round of “Top Chef,” but not from the protagonist of a major motion picture that has bigger aims. When asked by Dr. Rosshilde what winning a third Michelin star would mean, Adam Jones has a clear answer — immortality. Unfortunately, “Burnt” doesn’t share its lead character’s sense of ambition. It may not have improved the movie, but that guiding attitude almost certainly would’ve made it more intriguing. [C]