First Burnt was called Chef. It was directed by David Fincher and starred Keanu Reeves. Then Jon Favreau's Chef happened and what was to be Chef was retitled Adam Jones, after its protagonist, a chef named Adam Jones, who was now to be played by Bradley Cooper. Somewhere along the line, dark-minded Fincher was replaced by John Wells, best known as the showrunner for ER. Then because Adam Jones is a terrible name for a movie, it became Burnt and it was Burnt that I saw on opening night in a nearly empty theatre in Harlem USA.
Burnt is the kind of film that, aside from being a lackluster creative experience, does a disservice to everyone in the restaurant industry.
Is it possible to make a good feature film about a chef? An exhaustive survey of this column since its inception suggests it is, but exceedingly difficult. Documentaries about chefs can be good; documentaries about food can be good. Restaurants, chefs, and food can also play a wonderful supporting role in feature films. Chef is the one film about a chef that doesn't feel flat but again, that is less about being a chef as it is about being a human who cooks.
I suppose that is also how Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, and Mario Batali, three of the consultants on Burnt, might describe it, as about being human. According to the precis on the film's slick official website, it's "a remarkably funny and emotional story about the love of food, the love between two people, and the power of second chances." Except of course it is none of those things. Burnt is the kind of film that, aside from being a lackluster creative experience, does a disservice to everyone in the restaurant industry.
To explain the basic mise en place: Adam Jones is a bad boy ("rockstar") chef who ran a two-Michelin-star restaurant in London. Through his addiction to drugs and alcohol, he lost it all. He sentenced himself — his words, not mine — to New Orleans to shuck a million oysters as penance. The film opens on the completion of said task. He returns to London to re-establish himself, takes over the restaurant at the Langham Hotel run by the son of his mentor, recruits then beds Hélene (Sienna Miller), and finally earns his third star. He screams a lot in the kitchen and throws plates against walls. He's intense. He's Bradley Cooper.
The entire experience feels hopelessly dated and embarrassingly out-of-place.
It's impossible to evaluate the movie without noting that Gordon Ramsay was involved and also without noting that the script languished for almost a decade before finally getting made. These two facts are germane. The first one is relevant because the film is, functionally, nothing more than Gordon Ramsay propaganda.
The second might help to explain why the entire experience feels so hopelessly dated and embarrassingly out-of-place. There's a silly metaphorical import, for instance, attached to sous-vide bags, as if they hadn't already been in use since 1971. That said, even in 2007 when "Untitled Chef Project" appeared as one of the most buzzed about unproduced scripts in Hollywood, it would have been tasteless to treat New Orleans as nothing more than a self-imposed penance for an exiled chef who scaled the sides of Mount Purgatory by shucking a million oysters. But that's what this film does. It would have been annoying, to say the least, if upon the completion of his sentence, said exiled chef grabs his leather jacket and walks out of the restaurant, leaving his co-workers to ask, "Hey man, where are you going?" And yet that's what Adam Jones also does. It's a nice plot point, I guess, but betrays a lack of understanding — or care — for how a restaurant works, for how people work, for how people in a restaurant work.
From soup to nuts Burnt is, like its protagonist, self-involved. And like its protagonist, it is blinkered by Samsaric existence. In this case, that dingleberry of happiness into which Adam Jones places all hopes is three Michelin stars. Maybe in 2007, the Michelin Guide still had some residual cachet, but today it's more like the Lenape language, from which we get the word Manhattan. Sure, we say the word a lot but few of us actually speak the language. Today, the stars function mostly as narrative devices around which films like this one can spin their threadbare plots.
More enervating than the clear futility of Jones' pursuit — for all of us are stuck in Samsara — is the idea that we, the audience, should feel some sort of awe for Cooper's character, as if his prowess in the kitchen somehow indemnifies his destructive behavior to those around him. He physically assaults one of his chefs. He berates the others. He smashes plates and stares down his employees. And yet, such is his brilliance that these petty acts are best unremarked upon. Such is his charisma that somehow it isn't exploitative when he forces a chef of her own kitchen (Sienna Miller) to work for him and then initiates a relationship with her. Such is his attractiveness we are meant to believe — in perhaps the most audaciously inane subplot — it is not only women who succumb to his bad boy charm but that men too, like the maître d' at his restaurant, throw themselves at his feet. Creating a hostile work environment? Instilling fear in those with whom one works? Those are the mere quibbles of the jealous and small-minded. This is an argument which serves powerful men like Gordon Ramsay well but the rest of us very poorly. On a much more serious level, it's the same kind of logic behind the defense of creative men like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and even Bill Cosby. He's just so talented.
As a restaurant critic but even more, as a human, I want to know the food in front of me has been made with joy and love. Yet joy and love are the two things completely absent in Burnt. There is intensity and dedication. There is pathos and an omelette. But there is also fear, pain and suffering. That the one inflicting this on others is no less an august personage than Bradley Cooper, he of the cool blue eye and dashing smile, and that we are meant to swoon and sigh over it, strikes me not only as bad moviemaking but bad, full stop. The only glowing ember of good news to be salvaged from the Burnt debacle is how widespread the opprobrium is. It means, I hope, the culture of professional kitchens has come a long way from the shitty shouty early aughts and that chefs like Jones are a dying breed.
Rating: 0/5 stars.
Burnt is currently screening at theaters nationwide.
Eater exclusive: The making of Burnt