Is there anything more insufferable than the badass persona of the rock-star chef? I blame Anthony Bourdain. Ever since the biker-jacketed gastronome published his best-selling 2000 memoir, Kitchen Confidential, we’ve been inundated with tattooed rebels trying to convince us that they’re Jimmy Page with a zester. Now, into this pop culture culinary milieu comes Burnt. It’s a movie that not only feels about 10 years too late, its message is basically that in order to be a great chef you have to be an arrogant jerk who treats everyone in the galley like crap. How else will they know you’re a genius? Of course, there’s room for redemption — in the movies there’s always room for redemption — but only after you’ve pissed off everyone around you because they just don’t get your alpha-dog artistry, your golden-god greatness, and your obsessive, Arthurian quest for (cue the heavenly choir) a third Michelin star.
I think you can probably tell that I didn’t care for Burnt. Or at least the first half, which is so stuffed with bad-boy clichés and arias of egomania it felt like a MAD magazine parody of Top Chef season 6. I almost felt bad for Bradley Cooper, who plays Adam Jones — a once-hot chef who was more or less expelled from Paris after snorting too many drugs and screwing over too many people (basically the same character he played on the short-lived 2005 TV version of Kitchen Confidential). As penance, Adam went to New Orleans and shucked a million oysters. Now he’s back on the scene in London, trying to resurrect his career by earning that third star. He goes one by one to his old crew (Daniel Bruhl, Omar Sy, Riccardo Scamarcio) and makes amends — or as much amends as his vanity will allow. He also takes on some rising hotshots, like Sienna Miller’s feisty single mom, Helene. Apparently, the bigger a chef’s sense of self-importance, the stronger the gravitational pull.
All of this is pretty predictable hash. And if there’s a sense of déjà vu with Adam’s Michelin pursuit, it might be because screenwriter Steven Knight also wrote last year’s Michelin-themed comfort-food film The Hundred-Foot Journey. But just when you think you know where Burnt is headed, there’s an underhanded twist about halfway in. And it’s almost enough to set the movie right. It doesn’t hurt that Knight and director John Wells have Bradley Cooper behind the burner. He’s one of the few actors who can convincingly play unlikable a-holes in the first act and end up earning your sympathy by the third — even if his hands are as tied as a Christmas roast as they are here. In one of the film’s many rapturous speeches about cooking, Adam says, “I want to make food that makes people stop eating.” In the moment, it sounds poetic, almost profound. But much like Burnt, the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. C+