** (out of five)
It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that a protagonist must be at least somehow likeable in order for an audience to spend a movie following them. It should also, by now, be a truth universally acknowledged that Bradley Cooper is an excellent actor (perhaps his three Oscar nominations in that category can move those who still consider him just a funny guy with a pretty face). To me it is obvious that Cooper likes to stretch himself, take risks, rise to a challenge. Perhaps that’s why he took the role of Adam Jones in Burnt, a character who must be the most unlikeable protagonist seen in a mainstream movie in many years. It is a challenge to sit through his appalling behaviour for the film’s ninety-seven minutes. Cooper is always believable, always compelling, but Adam makes you want to punch him in the face.
Adam is the world’s most celebrated chef, newly sober and getting back in the game after a self-imposed exile shucking exactly one million oysters in an oyster shack in New Orleans (a ludicrous dramatic conceit that sets the film’s tone of serious implausibility). His addictions are booze, drugs and sex, and they led him to personal and professional travesty. Now that his penance is complete, Adam seeks out his old colleague Tony (Daniel Brühl), who is Maitre D at the restaurant of his father’s London hotel, and tells him, point-blank, that he’s taking over the place. The road to his redemption is paved from there, but Adam heads along it in a continuing series of terrible behaviours that aren’t funny or clever, simply self-serving and contemptuous.
A love story, with Sienna Miller’s Helene, also a brilliant chef (but nowhere near as brilliant as Adam, who is essentially God to other chefs) is ludicrous, especially after a pivotal scene in which Adam abuses and humiliates her publicly and physically. Helene is a terribly written character, her motivations and actions completely subject to the script’s need to somehow keep our interest in Adam alive. Her behaviour is completely unbelievable.
Steven Knight wrote (my choice for) the best original screenplay of 2013, Locke, and some other fine films and television series including Eastern Promises and Peaky Blinders. But his script here is cookie-cutter and obvious, not to mention supremely formulaic. You can see it all coming a mile away. A lot of the dialogue is very, very “on the nose” (which is a serious disappointment from such a good writer), the characters are stereotypes throughout, and the whole thing feels very passé, especially in the wake of Jon Favreau’s now-beloved Chef (2014). The low point occurs when the film directly steals an iconic moment from Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996).
Yet somehow it’s not a complete disaster. All the actors are deeply committed, and manage to impress even through their one-dimensional character constraints (none more so than Matthew Rhys, playing a rival chef with – surprise! – arrogant, competitive anger issues). There are endless shots of food being prepared – more than any other foodie film I’ve seen – but the basic conflict between the rival chefs, centred on the preparation of food without flame (and instead, in plastic bags and with kitchen machinery that looks like it belongs in a laboratory) is dated, and feels it. Supposedly the script dates back to at least 2007; David Fincher was attached for a couple of years, with Keanu Reeves attached as Adam, before Fincher walked in 2010. Perhaps then it should have been left to wither and die; we’ve seen all this before, and much, much better. Great chefs may be horrible, arrogant, violent, self-centred, pretentious, egomaniacal dickheads, but that doesn’t mean we want to spend an hour and a half with one.