I waited tables all throughout college and grad school, and of all the restaurants I worked at, I think P.F. Chang’s was the nicest. At home, 90% of my cooking is done in an air fryer. So if you were to ask me what I know about fine dining, I would tell you the truth: absolutely nothing. And perhaps that’s why I won’t be returning to Burnt for a second helping (c’mon, you had to know I was going to do at least one food pun).
Burnt is a 2015 film directed by John Wells (of showrunner fame from ER and The West Wing) from a screenplay by Steven Knight (best known as one of the creators of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?). The film stars Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones, a rock star-esque chef who made it big in Paris before ruining it all with drug problems. Now after a self-imposed exile, in which his penance was to move to New Orleans and shuck one million oysters, he makes a grand entrance in London. His plans are equally grand: a culinary comeback that will earn him a third Michelin star.
To do this, he visits old friends from Paris (conveniently now all located in London) and convinces them to work with him again despite past mistreatment. He manipulates a few new acquaintances into the job, as well (including Sienna Miller as Helene the sous-chef). Emma Thompson and Uma Thurman also have roles respectively as a therapist and a food critic.
Once the pawns in his game are in place, Adam embarks in pursuit of his third star. Naturally nothing goes according to plan, and there is much drama to be had.
As far as the technical stuff goes (mise-en-scène, editing, set design, etc.), Burnt is…fine, although Wells employs an on-the-shoulder camera which is a pet peeve of mine, but it makes sense stylistically for a film all about the in-your-face drama of a haute cuisine kitchen. The main glaring flaw of Burnt is not in the execution, but in its main character, Adam.
If you attended a screenwriting class, likely the very first lesson imparted to you on your very first day would be this: show, don’t tell. Telling us that your character is a jerk or a genius or a whirlwind of masculine charisma is the easy way out. Showing us these things makes for a deeper, more engaging story. And this is Burnt‘s cardinal sin.
Throughout the film, Burnt continually tells the audience how great Adam is. We’re informed he’s such a charmer that he somehow bedded Uma Thurman’s character despite the fact that she’s a lesbian. One character compliments him on having done a good job teaching David, a young chef in his kitchen. But we don’t ever see this. We only see him yelling at David and/or yelling at his head chef to yell at David.
Adam’s one redeeming quality is supposedly his talent in the kitchen. He’s such a culinary mastermind that people forgive his egregious behaviour, both past and present, for the privilege of being in his presence and enduring his constant verbal abuse. He stirs a few things in pans, writes a quick menu, and voilà! He’s a genius. Or so they say.
Jon Favreau’s 2014 film Chef (which he wrote, directed, and starred in as chef Carl Casper) was also based on an antihero protagonist whom everyone forgave of his contemptible behaviour because of his gourmet talents. But in Chef, we see Casper’s passion while he cooks and creates, thus it’s far more believable when people are still drawn to him despite his temper and tantrums. And this is the crux of Burnt‘s Adam problem: I simply don’t believe him.
Burnt is a promising concept with a flawed script. Perhaps if you’ve worked in the cutthroat kitchens of the haute cuisine world, you might know people like Adam and be able to vouch for his authenticity, but I’d rather see it than hear you tell me so.
TBG Score: 4/10