Whatever, Chef: Despite some edge, "Burnt" comes out a bland dish
100 min., rated R.
Anyone who has ever watched Chef Gordon Ramsay in his various reality TV series, "Kitchen Nightmares," "Hell's Kitchen," and "MasterChef," knows that chefs are complicated beings. They're arrogant and militant jerks in the kitchen because they're very discerning when it comes to food, but that doesn't rob them of humanity, either. "Burnt" aims for a similar sensibility and one with a pricklier edge than last year's tasty, Jon Favreau-starring delight "Chef," until it comes out a bland, unsatisfying dish that ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions. Director John Wells (2013's "August: Osage County") and screenwriter Steven Knight (2015's "Pawn Sacrifice") initially cook up a tough, sometimes dark character study, but as it becomes bound to the warmed-over formula of a Bad Boy Becomes Better redemption story, it feels haphazardly told and half-finished — to be more on the nose, it's a bit choppy and undercooked.
Chef and restaurateur Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) was once the toast of Paris, but he burned too many bridges with his hubris, recklessness, and addiction to drugs, alcohol, and sex. After being sober for two years and shucking exactly one million oysters in New Orleans for his penance, he's apparently ready to open his own restaurant and earn his three-star rating from the Michelin Red Guide. In doing so, Adam gets help from maître d' Tony (Daniel Brühl), who harbors a crush on him and gives in to letting the culinary rock star run the restaurant at his upscale London hotel. Adam must also recruit a team made up of old friends, including Michel (Omar Sy), a former sous chef who was wronged by Adam years ago in Paris, and ex-con Max (Riccardo Scamarcio), as well as sous chef Helene (Sienna Miller), a feisty single mom who sees right through Adam. Even though Adam is such a controlling, hot-headed jerk, can he redeem himself with his orgasm-inducing dishes? Can he be loved?
For a drama about a clearly talented protagonist who strives for culinary perfection, "Burnt" isn't perfect itself. The one-and-done opening narration seems like a hasty addition in post-production that adds nothing to character details we learn about gradually throughout the film. There are theoretical stakes, but what the narrative mostly comes down to is whether or not Adam will earn his third Michelin star, pay off his drug debt (a needlessly tossed-in subplot that gets tidily resolved), and prove to his staff that there is a human being under all of that assholery. If it seems like the script will refreshingly resist making Helene a love interest for Adam, it mostly does, save for a hint at the possibility of a relationship, but she deserves someone who doesn't grab her by the collar in a rage (really, what a guy!). The fiery kitchen-nightmare scenes, where Adam acts like a dictator in his own kitchen, has plate-throwing tantrums and browbeats his staff, are intensely watchable and invariably the most interesting. The film is also best when Adriano Goldman's camera salivates over the succulent food preparation, trying to out-food-porn "Chef," that it would be wise not to watch on an empty stomach.
Before Bradley Cooper became a household name, he starred in 2005's short-lived TV show "Kitchen Confidential," itself based on an Anthony Bourdain best-seller, as a recovering addict-turned-executive chef named Jack Bourdain. Here, his Adam Jones seems like an obvious extension of that character in a feature film. Adam is self-destructive and temperamental, and he won't be mentally stable until he reaches unattainable perfection, and Bradley Cooper bites into the unlikable role of the diva chef with an inner brokenness and hot-and-cold volatility. The character has interestingly contradictory philosophies about food; he thinks "consistency is death," and as his mission statement goes, "I want to make food that makes people stop eating." Cooper is so credible playing a prick troubled by his demons and inflated by his own ego that it's too bad Steven Knight's script softens him with teachable, redeemable moments and a pat "family dinner" coda, and instead of caring about Adam, one's interest relies solely on the appeal of the attractive, piercingly blue-eyed actor who's scruffier and less svelte here. He proves that he's no less of an actor when the material isn't up to his level, particularly in one vulnerable, alarmingly raw moment when Adam falls off the wagon and stumbles into the kitchen at frenemy chef Reece's (Matthew Rhys) sterile, minimalist restaurant. Since Adam's backstory that made him a failure in Paris is still pretty sketchy, it would have been more compelling to see a feature film about that failure rather than the redemption.
John Wells' direction is fine, and he has populated it with a more-than-capable cast. Sienna Miller, as sympathetic single-mom sous chef Helene, holds her ground with her "American Sniper" co-star; Emma Thompson is as warm, sardonic and magical as only Emma Thompson can be as Dr. Rosshilde, a recovery therapist who gives Adam weekly wisdom with his drug tests; Uma Thurman has two scenes as lesbian food critic Simone, who once slept with Adam; and hot rising star Alicia Vikander (2015's "Ex Machina" and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.") shows up at the end to be lovely as usual but is given very little else to do as Anne Marie, the daughter of Adam's late mentor who used to date him in Paris. The rest of "Burnt" doesn't even come close to the passion and the heat in the kitchen and tries to be palatable for mainstream consumption, which is just a compromise and detriment to itself. It's in no way a bad film, but no more than middle-of-the-plate or deserving of much of an enthusiastic reaction, much less two Michelin stars. As Adam Jones tells his staff when speaking of his haute cuisine, "If it's not perfect, then you throw it out!" He makes it so easy to say the same about the film.