You could pun yourself daft describing the unrelenting, soggy-bottomed awfulness of Burnt, the odd story of an arrogant chef (Bradley Cooper) trying to regain lost glory. Its combination of subject matter and ineptitude is practically a gift – it even offers to start things rolling with its title. It is undercooked, fatty, overripe, less than the sum of its ingredients – it is cordon bleurgh. Despite assembling an excellent cast (Cooper is joined by Uma Thurman and Sienna Miller) and creditable off-camera talent (writer Steven Knight’s CV includes Locke and Eastern Promises), it’s a film that shows little idea of what it wants to say nor any joy in saying it.
Cooper is Adam, a once-celebrated chef who fell off the radar following a drug and alcohol-related meltdown. After getting himself clean and serving a self-imposed penance of shucking a million oysters (don’t ask) he decides he is going to earn his third Michelin star and sets off to London to bully an old friend (Daniel Brühl) into funding his comeback, exploiting the fact that said friend is in love with him.
Adam is awful. It always seems that at some point, surely, he will reevaluate and learn to be less selfish, that he will realise being seen to be better than everybody else is not the most important thing in the world. But no. The film’s plot is: will a horrible man achieve his dream of impressing the critics. Who cares?
Cooper looks uncomfortable as Adam, who shouts, throws plates and behaves like a child, yet is somehow irresistible to all. Brühl falls for him, Sienna Miller’s fiery sous chef falls for him, Uma Thurman as an expository lesbian critic falls for him. The viewer’s heart may remain unfluttered. Cooper’s not given the material or support to play it convincingly. The script by Steven Knight piles on supporting characters in an attempt to find some dimensions to Adam, but it’s like throwing overcooked spaghetti at a wall – it all just slides off. Director John Wells offers no help, repeatedly fluffing the moment. In a scene where Adam makes a birthday cake for a child, which could have shown a flash of humble kindness, he has him parade out a big show-off confection that looks like something a minor royal might plop on their head for a day’s racing at Ascot. The child, who doesn’t say thank you, declares, “I’ve had better.”
For a film about food, Burnt shows no pleasure in it. Adam assembles prissy plates, ingredients teetering on top of each other like camp Jenga, titivated with little squirts of sauce and bits of flower quivering on top. It’s all Instagram-ready faff, not the sort of thing that gets your taste buds revved up. Adam’s dishes perfectly encapsulate everything that’s wrong with this film: it’s more interested in pleasing itself than the customer.