Burnt stars Bradley Cooper, who crops up in about every third movie these days. After the loathsome nadir of The Hangover, his rise has been spectacular. An Oscar seems only a matter of time—though he may have to wait until he’s 80 and gets one of those lifetime awards that are the Academy’s way of apologizing for all the times you were passed over.
In Burnt, Cooper plays Adam Jones, a superstar chef who has fallen from the heights of Parisian haute cuisine to shucking oysters in a seedy New Orleans joint. The movie’s title refers to what Adam has done to his career, his constitution after years of substance abuse, the French drug dealers he stiffed, and most of his personal and professional bridges. But not to any meals—even at his worst, Adam never burned one of those.
Adam’s self-imposed penance for his sins is that three-year stint at the oyster bar. After shucking a million oysters—that works out to about 160 an hour, if you’re wondering—he decides it’s time for a comeback, decamps to London, and proceeds to re-ingratiate himself with people he once screwed over. He’s able to do this through a combination of undeniable culinary genius and, in spite of everything, personal charm.
Among these is Tony (Daniel Bruhl), the son of a great restaurateur who is now, Adam says, running his late father’s establishment into the ground. Adam talks his way back into Tony’s kitchen, Tony is bumped back to maitre’d (he’s the greatest at that, Adam says), and the two of them embark on a quest to earn that elusive third star in the Michelin guidebook. (Will they make it, ya think?) Along the way, Adam recruits old cronies Michel (Omar Sy) and Max (Riccardo Scamarcio) and budding talents David (Sam Keeley) and Helene (Sienna Miller)—the latter a feisty single mom destined by the inexorable logic of cliché-dom (plus Miller and Cooper’s proven chemistry in American Sniper) to strike romantic sparks with Adam. Meanwhile, to prove his sobriety, he pays weekly visits for blood tests and counseling to a shrink.
Steven Knight and Michael Kalesniko’s script never really shows us why Adam is such an artist in the kitchen, beyond a battery of montages of him hunched over, drizzling sauce on tiny mounds of food in the center of huge white plates. Knight, Kalesniko and director John Wells (dutiful, if uninspired) simply show Adam in abuse mode—screaming at underlings, throwing plates, clearing prep tables with an angry sweep of his arm—and expect us to make the connection: jackass equals genius. Adam may not look like a star in the kitchen, but Bradley Cooper is one onscreen, and that’s good enough for them.
Burnt, like any good foodie movie, made me hungry, but not for the meals. I felt famished for more of its actresses. Emma Thompson is underused; ditto Alicia Vikanker as Adam’s former paramour. Worse, Uma Thurman as a haughty food critic and Lily James as David’s girlfriend are barely even present. I wanted to tell Wells and Knight what Claude Rains told Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “How extravagant you are throwing away women like that. Someday they may be scarce.”