Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard-earned dollar.
This week, Bradley Cooper stars as a top chef with a seriously seedy past in Burnt.
I Want People to Sit at That Table and Be Sick with Longing
Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) was once one of the greatest chefs in the world. But he lost everything in a whirlwind of sex and drugs and … more sex and drugs. He even lost his Two Michelin Star reputation. But that’s nothing that two years of sobriety and shucking oysters in New Orleans can’t fix. Emerging from self-imposed exile, Adam makes his way to London where he hopes to regain his former glory – and then some – by taking his dishes into the culinary stratosphere. Luckily he’s still got a friend or two in the restaurant game. Sort of. With a crack team of old allies (Daniel Brühl) and new (Sienna Miller), Adam sets out to claim his culinary destiny by earning himself a near mythical third Michelin Star. But can he check his massive ego long enough to do it? That’s the central question driving John Well’s Burnt, a mildly entertaining near-miss of a film that spends more time ogling Bradley Cooper’s insanely blue eyes than it does ogling the culinary masterworks he’s serving up.
If It’s Not Perfect, You Throw It Away
A wise old chef once told me, “People eat first with their eyes.” Those words had a profound impact on the way I approached every facet of the decade-plus I spent whiling away in the restaurant business. And yes, looks have a lot to do with a successful dining experience. But even pretty food has to taste good. The same rules apply to ‘culinary cinema’. Part of what makes films set in the culinary world so much fun is ogling the tasty dishes that cross the screen. It appears that Burnt director John Wells did not get that memo. With all of the film’s big talk about food, food, food – there’s a surprising lack of it throughout. For the breadth of Burnt’s 100 minutes, Wells repeatedly chooses pretty faces and pretty locales over savory dishes and the processes that produce them. The result is a culinary dry-hump of a film in which pretty people spend more time talking about themselves than they do talking about food. Or cooking it. Or even eating it.
That’s not to say that food doesn’t play a big part in Burnt. It does. But it’s not the star of the show. Screenwriter Steven Knight’s (Locke, Eastern Promises) watered-down redemption story is largely to blame for that. To his credit, the restaurant world and its never-ending stream of supremely gifted fuckups is the perfect setting for a tale of atonement. But the usually stalwart scribe fails to find balance in his story’s high-dining aspirations and its tepid tale of redemption. The film suffers further in Cooper’s portrayal of the Burnt’s brutish culinary “master.” You can see that Cooper put a lot of work into looking the part, but at no point in Burnt does Cooper look like anything but an actor pretending to be a chef. Cooper is much more at ease when he’s able to just sit back and talk. To that point, the film is most successful when it takes the action out of the kitchen.
But then – minus a delicious bit of dialogue that draws parallels between fast food and traditional French cuisine – the action outside of the kitchen is the least interesting part of Knight’s story. There’s supposed to be great meaning in Jones’ attempts to reconcile with his past and redeem himself in the eyes of his contemporaries, but none of it feels earned. That may be because we never get a glimpse of the irascible chef at his lowest. Since we only pick up with the man at the end of his road to redemption, the journey is meaningless … little more than a flavorless meal that sat a little too long under a heat lamp. There’s meat on the plate, but you may not get much out of it.
Burnt isn’t a bad movie. It’s simply a bland one. And in the ‘culinary cinema’ game, that’s the one thing a film cannot afford to be. I just can’t recommend you dropping that dollar this week. That being said, if you’re in the mood for an easy to swallow redemption story with a double helping of Cooper’s insanely blue – seriously, they’re so blue – eyes, you might enjoy the hell out of this film. If you count yourself a foodie or have ever spent time working in a restaurant, you won’t find much heart in Wells’ film or its kitchen. Either way, you can save your dollar this week and spend it on a slice of culinary cinema more worthy of your appetite – like the Campbell Scott & Stanley Tucci directed Big Night (1996) or Ang Lee’s sumptuous Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). Even Jon Favreau’s charming Chef (2014) packs more zest into its sappy taco-truck drama. Those films will run you about $4 to $5 big ones on iTunes, but what you lose in price, you more than make up for in flavor. And that’s what food movies are all about.