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October 30, 2015

What is it with restaurant cooking movies always handing reviewers the metaphors on a silver platter? There are exceptions, but so many of these end up circling around the idea of a master chef seeking to win over a difficult food critic. Maybe it’s the way movies themselves are team endeavors — ones where all but a handful of players are usually ignored — whose most coherent response is from film critics, so restaurants end up as stand-ins for the movies themselves. That was certainly the case with Chef, which at least had something to say through the metaphor.

Burnt, on the other hand, does not. It seems that Steven Knight, on the tail of adapting the script for The Hundred-Foot Journey, decided it would be a good return on his research investment to throw together his own story about a chef seeking Michelin stars, and in the process show he really understands nothing about cooking.

To be sure, Burnt deploys all the language that you might hear on the latest “reality” cooking shows, although it doesn’t always get them in quite the right places. It also cribs the Gordon Ramsay-esque enfant terrible chef character for Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper). Adam was a rising star in Paris, earning two stars as head chef for his mentor’s restaurant, before ruining everything with drink, drugs, womanizing, and other antics. His bridges burnt, he ran off to New Orleans — surely the easiest city in the world to get sober in — and spend three years shucking a literal million oysters as “penance”.

We’re already getting into the problems here. What do any of these have to do with each other, besides building up an image using popular tropes? Paris and New Orleans: two big food cities known for their restaurant culture, and we’re soon headed to London. Addiction problems signal volatility, but also rule-breaking. And “penance” is always a nice, visceral, Catholic sort of word, even if it doesn’t really mean anything here. All Adam needs now is a leather jacket, a motorcycle, and a lesbian sleeping with him despite herself, all of which will be squared away in short order. Women want to sleep with him; men want to be him. Some men want to sleep with him too, but he’s too masculine and stubbly for that, though he’s comfortable enough with his masculinity to take it in stride.

So he assembles his team. Or, rather, re-assembles, since most of them are people he screwed over in the past. He convinces restaurant-owner Tony (Daniel Brühl) to make him head chef, with no sign of the chef he ousted. His old buddy Michel (Omar Sy) just happens to be in London, ready to serve as sous-chef. So, incidentally, is his old arch-enemy Reece (Matthew Rhys). And Sienna Miller rounds out the cast as Helene, Adam’s new saucier — not his sous-chef as people keep saying — and obvious will-they-or-won’t-they-but-they-totally-will interest.

John Wells’ direction won’t exactly be earning any Michelin stars. It’s not that the movie is flat-out bad, but it’s just never very good. Over and over, characters stop to explain 101-level information to each other, obviously because Wells and Knight don’t trust the audience to be more than culinary idiots. And then they themselves turn around to mangle the terms, most gratingly with the constant implication that stars are awarded to the chefs themselves rather than the restaurants.

“But how else,” you can hear the filmmakers whinge, “are we supposed to make an interesting movie about a restaurant, besides turning it into a bog-standard bad-boy redemption story?” Here’s one idea to start with: try showing the food using shots that last longer than a quarter-second. In fact, focus on the food a lot more than the people. One of the strongest ideas here is the conflict between Adam’s older, flashier style and Reece’s embrace of molecular gastronomy. A movie that built its story around that, explained what each style can bring to the table, and found its resolution in a blend of the two would still be plenty conventional, but would be a lot more interesting than what we’ve got.

The fact that Wells and Knight do focus so much more on the people than the food they make is, if we take the obvious metaphor seriously, a sign of severely overdeveloped egos. I’ll go out of my way and pay an exorbitant price for a tasting menu by Cathal Armstrong or Michel Richard or José Andres not because they’re such interesting guys, but because they make such wonderful food. I get excited to see an upcoming movie by Paolo Sorrentino or Terrence Malick or Tarsem not because of anything about their personal stories, but because of what amazing films they make. And while both Wells and Knight have a few good films to their credit, they’re nowhere near the level they see reflected in their lead.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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