Burnt tells the story of Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper), who years ago was running one of the top restaurants in Paris. His demons caused him to crash and burn, and at the start of the film he is just at the end of his self-imposed penance of shucking one million oysters. He travels to London, where he basically cajoles an old associate (Daniel Brühl) into helping him open a new restaurant so that he can finally get his third Michelin star. He puts together a crew of old friends and promising new blood, hoping to redeem himself through his food. But his demons don’t seem to quite done with him yet.
In a better world, Burnt wouldn’t be a story of redemption. The film depicts a unique, very difficult, high-pressure world that seems entirely reliant on volatile personalities unwilling to let go of perfection. That is a fascinating milieu for any movie, and there is much to gain from watching a character whose worst qualities might be the cause of his success. Burnt takes a long trip through a really interesting setting, but it gets pretty lazy as it builds toward a really boring moral.
This film finds its appeal when the main character breaks down. When, in spite of his obvious talent and the lessons he’s supposed to have learned in his days of repentance, things still don’t work out. This is generally what makes genius in fiction so compelling: the idea that there is a real price to pay for being so brilliant. The most compelling scenes in this film go well over the edge of what most would consider acceptable behavior. Adam Jones screams and yells at his chefs, torturing himself and others for the crime of being imperfect. This is the world in which he exists. The film is at its most powerful when it stares into the darkness of that world.
But in the end, the film can only cop out. This is a feel-good movie, one that seems intent on delivering a moral lesson about trusting others and the importance of teamwork. This message is delivered in spite of a second act twist that seems to reinforce the idea that the main character can’t trust anyone. But the film barrels on, and this fascinating man is made a lot less fascinating as he becomes a cuddlier version of whatever he is. It’s all very trite. “Be nicer and you’ll succeed,” the film seems to say. It’s a nice thought, but it makes for a predictable, at times outright contrived viewing experience.
The production is all right, though more focus could have been given over to the food. And there are developments relegated to montage that might have worked better as full, dramatic scenes. The acting makes up for those shortcomings, though. Bradley Cooper is certainly more fun to watch in the scenes prior to this devastating moral. In this film the actor’s ridiculously blue eyes are these glassy pools out intensity. It always feels like Cooper is on the verge of strangling someone, which is great for a role. A respectable set of actors fill out the supporting roles, all of them doing fine, professional jobs.
Burnt gets pretty treacly by the end. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but films have to earn their sweetness. It has to feel appropriate. Here, it just feels like the default Hollywood ending, the movie settling for a lazy, moralistic ending that seems to betray so much of what’s already been told in the story. The ingredients of this film point toward something much darker, much heavier. But in the end, they just poured sugar all over it. It doesn’t taste right.