MOVIE REVIEW: Burnt
"BURNT"-- 3 STARS
The arrival of "Burnt" is an excellent opportunity to talk about Hollywood's famed "Black List." To the uninformed, this incarnation of the name isn't referring to James Spader's TV show or the McCarthy-era censorship of alleged Communist sympathizers in the 1950's. Published by former studio executive Franklin Leonard, The Black List is an annual survey report of the most liked un-produced screenplays on the market as judged by film production and finance executives. Movies that have graced this list range from easy crowd-pleasers to acclaimed award winners. In fact, since the list started in 2004, 987 screenplays have been named to The Black List. Over 300-and-counting of those ended up being produced as theatrical features. Those 300+ have earned over $25 billion at the box office and accumulated 223 Oscar nominations and 43 wins, including eight of the last thirteen winners for screenwriting awards. As a screenwriter, you want to make this list.
Bred from a story by Michael Kalesniko ("Iron Sky," "Private Parts") and scripted by Steven Knight ("Dirty Pretty Things," "Eastern Promises," "Locke"), this screenplay made the 2007 Black List, was held by director David Fincher ("Gone Girl") and his attached star Keanu Reeves from 2008 to 2010, and tried on for size by Derek Cianfrance and Bradley Cooper in 2013 after "The Place Beyond the Pines," all before landing to John Wells ("August: Osage County") with Cooper sticking around. Adding to the odyssey was losing a cease-and-desist case with John Favreau's 2014 film "Chef" over the simple and clear film title of choice. Instead, we have "Burnt," a highly polished and highly predictable crowd-pleaser that has lasted through the obstacle course and washing machine of musical chairs to be the film you see marketed before you today.
Bradley Cooper dominates the picture as Adam Jones, a renowned world-class chef who bottomed out following his mentor's footsteps in Paris. Plagued by a hard-living bouquet of drugs, alcohol, and women, Jones went down in flames and disappeared to obscurity. In an effort to get clean and plan his triumphant return, Adam washed off his vices and has finished a two-year, self-imposed penance of shucking 1,000,000 oysters in New Orleans kitchens. He sets his sights on London to take over a restaurant and make amends. Thanks to those burned bridges from Paris, no one wants to see Adam, but they all respect his greatness.
The restaurant in Adam's cross hairs is run by Tony, the maitre d' son of a hotel/restaurant owner and former colleague, played by Daniel Bruhl of "Rush." Enlisting the help of a food critic friend (Uma Thurman) to make a surprise review visit, Adam forces Tony's hand to take him back to make the grade. Now with a restaurant in his control, Adam goes to work enlisting help and reinventing the menu with his dated, yet sturdy style. His top two targets are his former sous chef Michel (Omar Sy), who also took a fall in Paris, and a promising new recruit (and love interest, of course) named Helene, played by Cooper's "American Sniper" spouse Sienna Miller. Adam's chief goal is earning a three-star rating from the famed Michelin Guide that would prove his talent, make him a legend, and show up his crosstown rival chef Reece (Michael Rhys from FX's "The Americans").
Director John Wells always brings forth stellar ensemble work from his actors. He knows that every ensemble still needs a central figure that everyone else orbits around. He had that with George Clooney on "ER" and the Oscar-nominated Meryl Streep on "August: Osage County." Bradley Cooper is the necessary red supergiant at the center of "Burnt." Wells allows Bruhl, Miller, Rhys, and quick appearances from Emma Thompson to have little moments to shine here and there, but it's all about Adam's predictable redemption story taking precedence. Even the ever-attractive food can only hope to tag along and remain secondary.
Unquestionably, "Burnt" is a glamour piece for Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper. He is completely in his element as the likable asshole with the rapid-fire dialogue and the crass appeal audiences have loved from him since "The Hangover." Here, the actor is clearly channeling a witty impression of TV chef Gordon Ramsey, himself an executive producer on the film (surprise, surprise). Because Cooper has been able to speak fluent French for years, now he's just showing off and he's earned that right as an A-lister. A character like Adam Jones is whiffle ball for Bradley Cooper and far from the heavy lifting required from the likes of "American Sniper" and his David O. Russell collaborations of "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle." He's allowed an easy vacation like "Burnt."
Due entirely to his talent and appeal, two hours of Bradley-being-Bradley works and the film will rightly entertain at an acceptable superficial level. The subject is simple and the the risk is low. The food is pretty, the ensemble is smooth, and the cliches are pre-made. While "Burnt" offers a flourish or two to spark a little extra entertainment, it is far from the grass roots personal touch and smaller scale passion that was Favreau's "Chef" a year ago. "Burnt" is, in essence, more elitist and that requires you to be impressed, but only at a distance.
LESSON #1: DON'T COME TO A FOOD OR COOKING MOVIE HUNGRY-- This should be said out loud as a disclaimer at the end of every trailer for movies of this topic the same way car safety gets listed after "Fast and Furious" movies. Eat before you sit down and watch "Burnt," "Chef," or "Ratatouille," "Big Night," or any of the other movies on this list. If you don't, you will overspend on popcorn, gnaw on the arm rest, or seriously consider cannibalism towards your neighbor in the seat next to you. Don't make that mistake.
LESSON #2: BEING A CHEF ON THE HIGHEST LEVEL REQUIRES PERFECTION-- Watching "Burnt" or the nit-picking minutiae of every food competition show ever on The Food Network will have you believe that even the smallest flaw to something incredibly brilliant at this level of the culinary stratosphere will cost people jobs, livelihoods, money, and sanity. The attention to detail and the stress of criticism and scrutiny is off the charts and too much. Admittedly, it's hard to feel positively for this elite 1%-ish crowd that includes Adam Jones and company. Denis Leary's blue-color cop character character in "The Thomas Crown Affair" remake in 1999 said it best about art and it translates to food stating "...a couple swirls of paint that are really only important to some very silly rich people." He didn't give a damn and there's a good chance you might not either.
LESSON #3: BEING A CHEF ON THE HIGHEST LEVEL REQUIRES ARROGANCE-- Now, we're talking character traits over talent. Arrogance is on the number one list for this movie and arena of creative cooking. A head chef has to believe and act that he or she is better than everyone else and direct an entire staff of go-getters underneath him or her that all want the top job they have. A screw-up by an underling gets blamed on the head chef and reputations are tarnished with any imperfection from Lesson #2. That requires that arrogance to lash out. The imagined in-your-face confrontation and competition scenes in "Burnt" feel like you're watching R. Lee Ermy boss around new recruits in "Full Metal Jacket." An arrogant guy like Adam will only cool that acid when his goals are accomplished with sustained success.