Before Anthony Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential in 2000, mere mortals who simply eat in restaurants had little idea about the drinking, debauchery and drug use rampant among the folks responsible for getting their fettuccine alfredo to the table. The book was eye-opening if true, and a rambunctious, vicarious pleasure even if only semi-true. But although it eventually made Bourdain a TV star, it surprisingly didn't spawn a legion of movies set in restaurant kitchens. There have been a few, such as Scott Hicks' tepid 2007 No Reservations (with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart). But John Wells' Burnt is the first mainstream picture to attempt to serve up the full Bourdainian, bacchanalian experience, even though Bourdain has no involvement in the film.
The result is an overflowing, oddly seasoned plate. Bradley Cooper plays Adam Jones, formerly a star chef at a hugely successful Paris restaurant. Drink, drugs and other crazy stuff got the better of him, and he dropped out and got clean: As the film opens, he's serving a self-imposed sentence doing the lowliest of tasks, shucking oysters. But even if his liver is a shambles, his ego is fully intact. He launches a plan to restart his career in London, persuading an old associate, Tony Balerdi (Daniel Brühl), to take a chance on partnering with him. Tony reluctantly agrees, and Jones proceeds to be his obsessed, perfectionist self, throwing tantrums in the kitchen every five minutes, often for no discernible reason. Plates fly against the wall and pan lids get dashed to the floor, where they spin and clatter like wayward symphony cymbals.
You might need all that noise to keep you awake. Wells (director, most recently, of August: Osage County) and screenwriters Steven Knight and Michael Kalesniko pack as much stuffing as possible into this rubbery squid of a film — and then jam in yet more, and the movie gets duller and less focused as it wears on. Jones has a sous-chef love interest (Sienna Miller, charming in her no-fuss bobbed blond hair) and a sultry ex (Alicia Vikander, who graces just a scene or two with her Mona Lisa smile). Uma Thurman shows up as a tough-ass lesbian restaurant critic: When she takes a bite of the meal Jones has prepared for her, the cartoonish glow of ecstasy that crosses her face wouldn't be out of place in a lo-cal–pudding commercial aimed at beleaguered housewives. Have I mentioned that Tony also happens to be in love with Jones? In one scene he's given the opportunity to gaze with lovesick longing at this asshole chef's shirtless form, though the movie treats his feelings as a tossed-off joke.
But wait, there's more: Omar Sy plays a struggling chef bent on avenging a past wrong, Matthew Rhys is a rival chef who cuts Jones down every chance he gets, and Emma Thompson is a well-heeled psychiatrist sporting an unflattering assortment of tent dresses and brogues. A kid gets into the act, too: Miller's single mom has an adorable moppet of a daughter, one who appears to have emerged from the womb with the sophisticated palate of a 50-year-old Le Meurice habitué. (She is pretty cute, and she's played by Lexi Benbow-Hart.)
What figurative sauce, seasoning, condiment or rare truffle oil doesn't find its way into Burnt? English chef Marcus Wareing and New York fixture Mario Batali served as consultants on the film, and though I can't really say if it's a realistic depiction of behind-the-scenes restaurant action, the actual cooking looks rather convincing. There's lots of shouting and chaos and shaking of pans, though the picture isn't as food-porny as you might expect: Wells gives us quick closeups of prawns being bathed in butter and chunks of meat sizzling away, but never time enough to ogle any of this rather ravishingly styled food.
We are expected, of course, to ogle Cooper's Jones, looking surly and scruffy and bedroom-ready, even when — maybe especially when — he's toiling in the kitchen. His arrogance is presented as swoon-worthy swagger. He doesn't really sweat; he merely gets dewy. But when he's finally humbled — as all alpha anti-heroes inevitably must be — he's actually less appealing than when he was a full-on jerk. Overcharred on the outside and soggy in the middle, Burnt just can't get it right. Back to the kitchen with it.
BURNT | Directed by John Wells | Written by Steven Knight and Michael Kalesniko | The Weinstein Company | Citywide