Thanks to reality television and the rise of personalities like Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain, the idea of the rampaging, egomaniacal chef is now pervasive in pop culture. Perhaps piggybacking on that concept is the new movie Burnt, which follows one similar chef in all his badness.
Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) is the type of chef people love to hate and hate to admit they love. Having worn out his welcome in multiple cities, Jones attempts one last comeback in London, taking over the restaurant in the hotel of longtime friend Tony (Daniel Bruhl).
Jones recruits a dream team, including a former foe, Michel (Omar Sy), and an up-and-coming sous chef, Helene (Sienna Miller), to join him in his quest to finally earn a third star in the venerated Michelin Guide. To add some spice to the story, he also maintains a not-so-healthy rivalry with another acclaimed chef, Reece (Matthew Rhys).
Director John Wells and writer Steven Knight walk the tightrope in how they portray Jones. Although antiheroes are not uncommon in recent years, there has to be some shred of likability in Jones for us to want him to succeed. The casting of Cooper is key to this, as he can put a foot on both extremes of the emotional spectrum and not come off as false in either one.
What the story does well is sell its various relationships. Tony and Adam have a mostly unspoken bond that colors many of the decisions each makes. Michel has good reason to hate Adam, but the pull of working for a great restaurant seemingly outweighs that. And Helene’s talent allows the character to rise above the level of necessary love interest.
Where the film falls off, though, is in the overarching story of Jones’ quest. For the sake of expediency, Jones going from the bottom to the top is simplified almost to the extreme. There are the usual ups and downs along the way, but Wells and Knight stick to the tried-and-true formula of similar stories. The filmmakers feint in other directions occasionally, but never seem to have the courage to stick with the unexpected.
Also, although it’s good that the film never turns into food porn, it’s slightly disappointing that the food isn’t highlighted more. There is plenty of focus on cooking techniques and food presentation, but they rarely explicitly say what food is being shown, leaving the audience to just guess as to what tasty morsel is being dished out.
Foodies and acting aficionados alike might be able to appreciate the talent on display in Burnt, even if the film as a whole fails to truly satisfy.