Perhaps it’s the sadomasochism of my own creative subconscious that finds me drawn towards films about capable creators whose downfall is themselves. (Seek out Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers 2012 masterpiece, for the best example in recent years). Burnt—the new film from John Wells, the architect behind similar award-bait fare like August: Osage County and The Company Men—is the most recent entry into the “tortured artist” pet theme. But Burnt fails where films like Inside Llewyn Davis don’t: it’s “tortured artist” is a reprehensible figure, lacking any self-introspection, driven almost entirely by the character’s maniacal id. The result is a film that tries to convince us that a character with almost no redeemable qualities is someone worth rooting for.
Burnt is a film about second chances. Bradley Cooper’s Adam Jones (a character name as provocative as the film itself) was once a renegade chef, a mad-genius who lost everything he built (lots of money, restaurant in Paris, etc.) due to drug-use, rampant misogyny and general assholery. Burnt picks up three years after Adam’s exile from the culinary world, he’s come to London to reestablish himself as the world’s preeminent food intellect.
Everything about Burnt feels like a rough draft. There’s a single, simplistic through line: Adam Jones is returning to the world of the upscale restaurant. But that through line isn’t fleshed out, instead the film is filled out with nearly a dozen B-plots, all of which serve the purpose of introducing a famous face as a supporting character, only to see their parts slowly fade into the periphery as the film’s screenplay (written by Steven Knight) struggles to find ways to use them. In addition to Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl and Matthew Rhys—the film’s only true supporting characters—Uma Thurman, Omar Sy, Alicia Vikander and Emma Thompson all appear in thankless cameos, seemingly only to bulk up the credit line of Burnt’s (absolutely atrocious) one-sheet poster.
But Burnt’s biggest sin is in offering a truly unlikable character and asking us to relate to him. Cooper’s Adam Jones is a man who has yet to prove his worth to the audience. He’s brash, rude, selfish and downright barbarous to his friends (a brief side-plot reveals he once called health inspectors to the restaurant of a friend-turned-competitor after releasing a stable of rats in the kitchen). But Adam Jones has changed. He self-exiled himself to Louisiana and sentenced himself to shuck one million oysters before returning to the culinary world (a detail meant to endear us to the character but reeks of lazy screenwriting masquerading as cleverness). But Adam Jones has not changed at all. When he returns to the culinary world, he continues to bully people, scream at underlings, treat women like garbage and allow the primal parts of his brain—the part that polite society suggests we restrain—to control every other character. By the time Sienna Miller’s character is introduced as a love interest (after 2014’s American Sniper this is the second time Sienna Miller has played the thankless love interest of a self-involved Bradley Cooper character who fancies his fragile masculinity as some kind of noble trait) it feels forced and awkward, after all Adam Jones hasn’t even established a rapport with the audience let alone with a living, breathing character.
If there’s a positive beat to Burnt, it’s the energy and excitement Wells is able to assemble when the film stops with the empty platitudes about second chances and gets down to cooking. I love cinematic food scenes, and Burnt has a few moments of excitement when we get to see a chef at work, but these moments are fleeting and seem to have been stumbled upon rather than expounded. In the end, Burnt is undercooked (BOOM! NAILED IT!) and is a lazy redemption tale about a character the film itself can’t even get invested in.
Craig is a writer living in north Florida with his wife and ornery dog. He writes about film and TV. He creates and publishes comic books under the label Gentleman Baby Comics. He's currently wishing his bio sounded more engaging.