During the worst of his many plate-smashing temper tantrums, Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper), self-styled bad boy of the London culinary world, scolds his fellow chefs for not meeting his brutally exacting standards: “If it’s not perfect, you throw it away!” Applying that logic, we would have to dispense entirely with “Burnt,” a moody-foodie therapy session that follows an increasingly tidy narrative recipe as it sets this one-man kitchen nightmare on a long road to redemption. Although John Wells’ dramedy is energized by its mouth-watering montages and an unsurprisingly fierce lead turn from Cooper, Steven Knight’s script pours on the acid but holds the depth, forcing its fine actors (including Sienna Miller and Daniel Bruhl) to function less as an ensemble than as a motley sort of intervention group. Unlikely to capitalize on its once-rumored awards prospects or match “Chef’s” indie-breakout status, the Weinstein Co.’s Oct. 30 release might still stir up a favorable arthouse and VOD response.
Even as he’s begun directing his own scripts (“Locke,” “Redemption”), Knight remains one of the busiest screenwriters on either side of the Pond, and here, working from a story by Michael Kalesniko (“Iron Sky”), he brings a brisk professionalism to his latest movie about a man’s quest for three Michelin stars (following last year’s “The Hundred-Foot Journey”). Still, there’s something a bit too slick and breezy about the way we’re introduced to Adam, an American expat who became one of the world’s greatest chefs by toiling in one of Paris’ greatest kitchens and is now one of cinema’s greatest a-holes, seeking to redeem himself and his career after the skirt-chasing, substance-abusing meltdown that led to the restaurant’s permanent closure. Years after that spectacular flameout, Adam has dried out and done his penance in a New Orleans oyster bar, though he still acts like a guy who doesn’t give a shuck as he swaggers into London, determined to take the city’s restaurant scene by storm.
But first, he’ll need the help of his trusty old maitre d’, Tony (Bruhl), who reluctantly hands over his present fine-dining establishment to Adam, though their rocky past still looms over them. Tony is hardly unique in that respect. As he builds up his kitchen dream team, Adam keeps running into old friends and enemies who make annoyingly cryptic references to “what happened in Paris” without ever spelling out exactly what happened in Paris. The returning old-timers include Michel (Omar Sy, “The Intouchables”), a sous chef who’s willing to let bygones be bygones if he can get in on Adam’s new venture, and Italian ex-con Max (Riccardo Scamarcio), whose ill-tempered perfectionism rivals the boss’s own. Also on hand is an old nemesis, Reece (Matthew Rhys), who now has his own comfortable three-star perch, though he’s aware that it’s only a matter of time before the more talented Adam returns to the top (assuming he can get out of his own way).
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Adam taps a few new recruits as well, including David (Sam Keeley), a nervous but talented up-and-comer, and Helene (Miller), a strong-willed chef de partie who gets a Gordon Ramsay-worthy tirade from Adam on the night of the restaurant’s not-so-grand reopening. Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before they kiss and make up, and soon their colleagues are placing bets on how long it will take Adam to bed his one and only female hire. If that quasi-romantic thread and the tough-customer kitchen dynamics seem to nod in the direction of “Ratatouille” — there’s even an all-powerful restaurant critic (played by Uma Thurman in a two-scene cameo), though she’s mainly on hand to set the plot in motion — the comparisons end there. Far from being a glorious portrait of the artist as a young cook, “Burnt” devolves into an angst-ridden melodrama of relapse and recovery, where no amount of gastronomical window dressing can disguise the familiar spectacle of one very gifted man behaving very badly.
Not that there’s anything wrong with gastronomical window dressing, and what we see here is certainly choice: a casual breakfast of tea-smoked mackerel and bouillabaisse, a child’s birthday cake dappled with pink rosettes, an unidentifiable green amuse-bouche that has “too much tarragon” and looks no less slurpable for it. (Celebrity chefs Marcus Wareing and Mario Batali served as consultants on the film.) Wells, a longtime TV director who proved himself an able big-screen craftsman on “The Company Men” and “August: Osage County,” captures the culinary milieu as well as its underlying energy: The dishes are shot in tantalizing closeups by d.p. Adriano Goldman and spliced into fluid, delectable sequences by editor Nick Moore, whose cutting mimics the swift, furious movements of an expertly wielded blade.
Knight’s script, too, supplies sharp, glancing insights into this ultra-competitive environment and the killer instinct it takes to succeed, even turning the Michelin quest into a sort of heist caper that continually places Adam and his team (which he models on the warriors from “Seven Samurai”) on high alert. The pressure takes a toll on Helene, who finds herself spending less time with her young daughter (Lexi Benbow-Hart). It also weighs on Adam, who yearns to turn a decent meal into something truly memorable, even mind-blowing, at a time when sous vide machines are all the rage, and his venerable tradition of cooking seems increasingly a thing of the past.
Unfortunately, “Burnt” never rises to the level of its characters’ ambition, and with the exception of one smart, unpredictable twist, the story increasingly bogs down in perfunctory subplots, including a brief run-in with a mysterious ex-lover (a lovely, fleeting Alicia Vikander) and the thugs who routinely turn up to shake Adam down for drug money. The script treats even the more essential characters not as individuals so much as, well, ingredients — perhaps none more insultingly than Bruhl’s Tony, whose longtime unrequited crush on Adam is resolved with a cheap punchline. All the supporting players, in the end, are forced to serve a basically therapeutic purpose, trying to show Adam that his extreme perfectionism is destroying his capacity for functional human relationships — which makes even the never-unwelcome Emma Thompson seem pretty redundant in the role of an actual therapist.
Cooper, who has played mentally distressed characters with virtuoso intensity (“Silver Linings Playbook”) as well as tactful restraint (“American Sniper”), combines a deft, vigorous physicality in the kitchen with a tightly wound verbal dexterity: He knows exactly how to sell an acerbic one-liner like “Apologize to the turbot, because it died in vain,” but also a dreamy sentiment like “I want to make food that makes people stop eating.” You believe him, and much of the frantic human activity swirling around him, without ever quite believing the movie that Wells and Knight have cooked up.