Movie Review: Burnt
The national Singaporean passion is food, so a movie about Michelin star chefs and gorgeously presented dishes has immense appeal to us. But since we already get to watch so many of them on cable with Asian Food Channel (AFC) and the Food Network, you need more than appeal to get us to shell out for a movie ticket, and Burnt has some messes lying around in its pantry.
Last we saw Bradley Cooper, Hollywood’s go-to roguishly charming leading man, he was half-baked in Aloha (oh yes, we will be serving up food puns). Now, he’s back as Adam Jones, a 2-star Michelin chef with an ambitious plan to “run the best restaurant in the world” and have his patrons “sick with longing” for what he serves them.
That would be a tall order even without Jones’ past of erratic behavior and substance abuse incinerating his career when he was starting out in Paris But after paying penance with a 2-year period of sobriety and shucking a million oysters, the recently reformed enfant terrible hopes to rebuild his reputation and even earn the vaunted third star. For those of us not in the know, 3-star chefs are so rare and exalted, they are compared to that sage of Star Wars, Yoda, in the movie.
It all smells too much like a reheated serving of Kitchen Confidential, a prematurely-canned sitcom, based on celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s eponymous book; where Cooper, 10 years earlier, had played the lead: a noted chef who must kick his drug/booze addiction to stage a comeback. Similarly, Jones battles more than critics’ discerning palates as he squares off against his inner demons, and slowly learns to trust and rely on others.
As an actor, Cooper has embraced 2 main archetypes over the years; either as the cocksure wise-cracker who oozes suave confidence (in Guardians of the Galaxy, Hangover) or the haunted man on the path to peace (Silver Linings Playbook, American Sniper). With Burnt, he blends the 2, embracing the role of a genius chef trying to live up to his potential.
Despite the 101-minute run time, Jones is the only properly fleshed out character in the flick – the rest of the cast having been left as flavorless, lean cuts. We barely recall Helene’s (Sienna Miller) motivations, only that she was coerced to work for and learn from Jones’s career revival. And that she’s also the obligatory shoehorned in love interest.
Tony (Daniel Brühl), the owner of the hotel Jones’s restaurant is in, got a little more seasoning: we’re told he wishes to please his dying father and that he’d loved Jones since the time they worked together under their mentor. We scarcely even know of the other chefs in Jones’s kitchen like David (Sam Keely) or Max (Riccardo Scamario) past their minute-long introductions.
Many will, no doubt, be drawn by the sensual close up shots of haute cuisine and delicate plating, evident even in the trailer. As a foodie himself, this writer admits salivating throughout the film. The crisp blade work and deft pan control make for thoroughly impressive action scenes in this emotional drama, props to the camera work. Other than the too frequent use of focus-switching shots, the cinematography is a top grade cut.
But Burnt’s gratuitous food porn isn’t all show as Cooper did get help to be a convincing Jones. The F Word 3-star chef himself, Gordon Ramsey, baptized Cooper and the other actors in the fires of the kitchen, teaching them the techniques of great cooking to get it to look just right on film. With the profuse swearing in Burnt’s kitchen, we’d conclude that Ramsey imparted more than culinary influence to Cooper. We wonder if Ramsey was as harsh with the cast as he is on Hell’s Kitchen.
Sadly, as much as we savored the Burnt dish visually with its vivid colors, the service left much to be desired. The film’s pacing is its main Achilles heel. The switches between lightning-fast snippets to slow crawls made for a choppier experience than herbs have a right to expect when they face the chopping board. While the fast cuts did emphasize the explosive energy of intense dinner service in a restaurant, Director John Wells’ vision of the action is jarring to watch and makes it that much harder to keep track of the story.
Thus, a movie about the elaborate and precise grandeur of haute cuisine (while not marred by overcooking as the title seems to suggest) felt more like a serving of fast food. But it’s still a touching film of a man’s vulnerability in a business where perfection is key. Though we’re not sure why it’s labeled as a comedy.
To its credit, we’re left wanting more than the small portion put before us, and wishing the waiter would stop changing our dish after we’d barely tasted it.
Release Date: 29 October 2015
Runtime: 102 minutes
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: John Wells
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Brühl, Matthew Rhys, Alicia Vikander, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson
Photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox