Any movie about the art of cooking will, inevitably, involve a bit of food porn. In Burnt, director John Wells, who previously directed August: Osage County and executive-produced E.R., goes all in on the entrée erotica. In Burnt — previously called Adam Jones until it was given a title one “Ya” away from a 30 Rock joke — the camera lingers lovingly on all manner of cuisine prepared and/or plated. There are the freshly sliced-open bags of fish poached sous vide; the mashed potatoes whisked briskly into starchy, velvet clouds; the birthday cake frosted with such rosette perfection that it looks more like a bridal bouquet than dessert. It’s all very seductive and exactly what one expects to see in a drama about a one-time elite chef seeking redemption and a third Michelin star at a sophisticated London restaurant. And that’s the problem with Burnt: Though it boasts an appealing glossiness and some strong performances from its excellent cast, including star Bradley Cooper, at no point does the movie ever surprise. For a drama about a man obsessed with making people have unconventional culinary orgasms, it takes a pretty standard, predictable approach to its story, particularly the foreplay.
Most of the first half of this film consists of Cooper running around London in a motorcycle jacket, looking hot and yelling at people, occasionally in French. Okay, that’s not entirely true. It just feels true. As Adam Jones, the bad-boy chef who’s turned sober but still needs to rehab his personality, he’s every hotheaded cook cliché you’ve ever seen on Hell’s Kitchen, or even just the commercials for Hell’s Kitchen. (For the record, Gordon Ramsay is one of Burnt’s executive producers.) He throws dishes. He dumps full plates of food into the trash when they don’t rise to his taste-standards. He forces Helene (Sienna Miller), a chef he hires to work under him at his newly launched restaurant, to apologize to a turbot she didn’t properly prepare, and when she chuckles at the idea of saying sorry to a cooked fish, he physically attacks her. He’s basically a gigantic asshole, but you know he’ll eventually become a less gigantic asshole because that is how movies like this work.
Once Adam starts to soften a bit, Burnt does get more interesting, even if it still can’t overcome the limitations of its screenplay by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Locke). Adam constantly refers to all the horrible things he did in Paris, but with a couple of exceptions, his previous transgressions are never fully explained. Adam’s longtime friend Tony (Daniel Bruhl), who also owns the hotel restaurant that becomes Adam’s home kitchen, notes that Adam had a rough childhood but doesn’t delve much further into that either. These gaps in backstory become liabilities and it’s difficult to cut through Adam’s tyrannical behavior and empathize with the guy. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes the dialogue is packed with so much exposition that it sounds entirely unnatural coming out of the actors’ mouths. “When I was your sous chef at Jean Luc’s, we were like brothers,” Adam tells Michel (Omar Sy), sounding very much like a fictional character that needs the audience to know these two men previously worked together and, also, were once very close.
Even when the notes Wells hits are overly obvious — so help me, at a particularly low moment, Adam actually stands on Waterloo Bridge, in a shot that prominently features the word Waterloo — he’s assisted by a cast of total pros. In fact, there are so many pros at work here that some of them are shamefully wasted. Uma Thurman gets maybe eight lines of dialogue as a stuck-up restaurant critic, while Alicia Vikander barely has a chance to register as an ex-girlfriend. It’s wonderful to see Matthew Rhys of FX’s The Americans in such a prominent big-screen role, but it’s unfortunate that he, too, is saddled with doing the dish-breaking routine as a fellow chef and rival of Adam’s.
Ultimately, the movie belongs to Miller and Cooper, whose characters — and I don’t think this counts as a spoiler alert — begin to warm to each over shared moments of kitchen obsessive-compulsiveness. There’s one scene in particular, in which Adam begins to open up to Helene, that feels wonderfully natural and intimate. It’s easy to forget these two recently played husband and wife in American Sniper because the chemistry between them here is so different, though no doubt bolstered by the fact that they’ve worked together before.
When Adam starts to regress emotionally and in terms of his addiction, that’s when Cooper does his best work. He plays a major meltdown scene with just the right mix of restraint and completely unbridled messiness. In that moment you feel for Adam, you really do. It’s too bad that too much of Burnt lacks that sort of emotional punch. Visually, Wells and his cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, depict the city lights of London and the spark of stove burner flames with a lovely, alluring glow. But the movie’s heart and soul is missing, somehow. Burnt is plated beautifully but lacks the complexity of flavor it so desperately wants to achieve.
Jen Chaney is a pop-culture critic and writer whose work appears in The Washington Post, Vulture, Esquire.com and numerous other outlets. She’s also author of the book “As If!: The Oral History of Clueless.” She can be found on Twitter @chaneyj.