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Movie Review: #Burnt

Although the food looks sumptuous, Burnt tastes terribly pedestrian.

Review by Matt Cummings

In Director John Wells' Burnt, the former chef Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) attempts to resurrect his career to earn the elusive third Michelin star while atoning for his past mistakes. But that won't be easy: although he's now clean from drugs and alcohol, many of his supporters have vanished, including fellow chefs Michel (Omar Sy), and Max (Riccardo Scamarcio). When Jones approaches his former partner Tony (Daniel Bruhl) - who runs his deceased father's restaurant but has doubts as to Adam's sincerity - the two put their pasts aside to turn Tony's kitchen into the best in London. Faced with a drug debt he cannot pay back and a cutthroat mentality on the part of competing restaurants, Adam must forge ahead with new-hire Helene (Sienna Miller), while Tony awaits the inevitable visit by The Michelin Guide.

Burnt isn't so much a sumptuous feast as it's more a Sunday buffet: lots of flavors leaving you with little to remember. In some cases, such a menu would thrill an action fan, but that's not who's paying to see Burnt, and given those parameters it's not so much a fail as more of a push. Wells does push his actors quite well, using every quip from Knight's script. Wells also makes the food look as exquisite as it probably tastes, surrounding it in opulent settings throughout London. But it's here where Wells also stumbles: there are literally scenes in which Cooper moves in and out of focus while occupying the same space. I caught two different instances in which Cooper doesn't move from a chair or area he's in, but the camera struggles to keep him in focus. The next minute, we get a pretty image of London, demonstrating that Wells knows what he's doing. It's a minor point, but when you're shooting for a Michelin star or Oscar glory, you better have the plate perfectly arranged.

Cooper likes to work with the same people (see J. Law in just about all of his movies), and here he reunites with his American Sniper cohort Miller, who's largely unrecognizable from her previous outing. But that ability to transform effortlessly between soldier wife, leather-clad baddie, or chef, offers an appealing push-back against Cooper's Joe instead of becoming subservient to his almost military handling of the kitchen. The two have good chemistry, although this is really Cooper's show. He's come so far from his blundering days in Alias, and here he makes a convincing case that his character's addictions have taken a toll. Jones is clearly weary, edgy, and filled with promise; Cooper seems to bask in these kinds of films, allowing Jones' deficiencies to kind of wash over him. Burnt doesn't make Cooper shine, but it does lead to some good storytelling.

But Burnt also stumbles through several unnecessary plot lines and pseudo cameos, including the terribly underused Alicia Vikander as Joe's ex-girlfriend. There's never the sense that either clicked as a couple, as their on-screen chemistry isn't given enough time to develop. In addition, Writer Steven Knight doesn't add enough urgency to things, fashioning a pure hero arc that's instantly recognizable. Yes, Adam will go through fire to get his third star, yes he will stumble and ultimately succeed; the problem is the menu Knight has fashioned doesn't sell us the dish, although he does drop a few surprises along the way. Bruhl's complex relationship with Jones is perhaps the best part of Burnt, highlighting the trouble one which bad decision can have on your future. Bruhl is consistently good in everything he does, although his inheritance of the family restaurant and Jones' drama are only tacitly explored. Emma Thompson's role as a nurse/psychiatrist is nice but ultimately hollow: her interactions with Joe amount to nothing more than dime-store drug psychology, something which Joe doesn't need.

What also plagues Burnt is the idea that the stars matter at all: it's not like Jones had them taken away, forcing a redemption scenario. This is just a guy who wants something fairly superficial, prompting Thompson's Rosshilde to state it best: "Then what?" I never felt that question got answered, leaving the entire ending of the film open to a questionable epilogue. Burnt leaves a pedestrian taste in one's mouth, when I think the whole point was to fill it with amazing flavors.

While Burnt is filled with good (but not exceptional) performances, its hero arc can be seen a mile away. That doesn't make for an Oscar-worthy experience, although it tries hard to impress. You're almost better off watching the superior 2014 Chef, as its straight-through approach only tries to be what it is and ultimately serves a tastier dish.

Burnt is rated R for language throughout and has a runtime of 101 minutes.

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