It’s not certain whether it’s the close-ups of great-looking, high class food or the obvious tributes to Celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsay that make Burnt a bit more enjoyable than it should be.
In a film that does almost everything wrong, from not tying up nearly every half-visited story-line to creating a film-version of the ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ guru himself, John Wells’s Burnt is a film of cast-off writing and a true lack of identity. The nice thing about it, though, is that if you are a fan of shows like ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ or its tributaries, Burnt will appeal to your culinary fandom and still have decent enough performances to keep you engaged.
Bradley Cooper is Adam Jones, a high-quality chef who was the main cog in a Parisian restaurant that won two Michelin stars in the late 90s-early 2000s. After drugs, alcohol, and a bad relationship with an ex (Alicia Vikander) pushed him over the edge (burning a few bridges along the way), Adam went to New Orleans to serve in a self-imposed exile, shucking a million oysters over several years as penance.
Once his exile is concluded, he heads to London to rekindle his food career, eventually running into his friend and former owner (Daniel Bruhl). Bruhl decides to give him the reigns to a restaurant and go for the heavenly third-Michelin star on a few conditions: first, he has to do regular check-ins with a therapist (Emma Thompson) and pass drug screenings with her, second, he has to find a good team to replace his original crew (he does welcome back a familiar face placed by Omar Sy), and third, he must compete against other michelin-star winning chef Reece (Matthew Rhys). Jones eventually teams up with single-mom with great cooking ideas Helene (Sienna Miller), and they chase greatness together.
The biggest problem with Burnt is that it brings up odd and awkward plot-lines, but is too inept to resolve them properly. Information about Jones’s past is revealed entirely in dialogue dumps of information, and character developments are based on throwaway reveals of parts of the character, only to never be addressed again. It was this inconsistency that forces the film to have such a low critical reception upon release, mainly because of the fact that the script writing was such a mess, and director John Wells (loved August: Osage County despite its flaws) didn’t reign in the loose plot-ends.
Technically, the film whirls and whips around the kitchen at fast speed, showing sweaty cooks and beautiful shots of the finished plates coming out to the audience. I would’ve liked to have known a bit more of the cooking process for such expansive dishes, but the cinematography from Adriano Goldman accomplishes much of what makes a film like this important. If you went to see Burnt, you want to see the food.
Despite the flaws in Steven Knight’s screenplay, and the clear lack of focus from director John Wells, the material is aided by solid performances, with veteran actors making an enjoyable film and clearly elevating the cardboard characters to something a little more. We’ve seen the angry, desperate Cooper before, and he’s very good in this, also rekindling his excellent chemistry with Sienna Miller from American Sniper of last year. Other pieces played by Daniel Bruhl, Omar Sy, and Emma Thompson are creative and helpful to getting us to bite, despite the narrative flaws.
When a few big twists happen, they catch you by surprise, and watching Cooper grow from mostly-attitude/lot of cooking skill to some attitude/plenty of cooking skill/reliance on the team functionality of the kitchen, the cheesiness of the dialogue becomes a little bit of distraction. The last twenty minutes, taken in a bit more subtle direction, would’ve also helped save this inconsistent, but often delightful look inside a kitchen.
If you’re a foody, and you enjoy this type of entertainment (I am), Burnt is worth the 95 minute distraction if you rent it upon its DVD release, but if analyzing this for structured narrative or something larger to hold onto, you’ll end up disappointed and prefer films like Chef instead. Burnt won’t burn you however, and although it may not be plucked from the Gordon Ramsay tasting menu of angry excellence, it’s enough of a worthwhile knock-off to assuage the hole left by Ramsay aborting ‘Kitchen Nightmares.’