‘Burnt’ bares all to show how the sausage is made
By Stephanie Merry
© 2015, The Washington Post
Everything you need to know about Adam Jones, the difficult cooking prodigy at the center of “Burnt,” you glean from the movie’s opening scenes.
Adam is the kind of guy who punishes himself by taking up a seemingly impossible task: shucking a million oysters. Once he has met his goal, years later, he bails on his boss, without so much as a farewell. Would it kill him to finish his shift? Yet for a man who submits to self-flagellation, he’s even worse to everyone else.
Viewers’ enjoyment of the movie will largely depend on their feelings about Bradley Cooper, the Academy Award nominee who plays Adam. Clearly, the character isn’t easy to love. He’s a genius, but no amount of artistry can compensate for how manipulative and mean he can be. (Residual goodwill from Bradley’s charming performance in “Silver Linings Playbook” can only help.)
As it turns out, Adam’s shucking challenge was amends for abominable behavior years earlier. Adam was once a chef working in a two Michelin star-rated restaurant in Paris, but drugs and alcohol turned him into an even bigger monster than he was when sober. His decision to disappear and clean up his act has left some people assuming he had died.
But now he’s back, to his former friends’ and enemies’ surprise, descending on London with a plot to open his own restaurant and accomplish a nearly impossible feat: earning his third Michelin star. In a sequence fit for a heist movie, Adam recruits a team to help him do it: fiery single mom Helene (Sienna Miller); a frenemy from his past life, Michel (Omar Sy); violent ex-con Max (Riccardo Scamarcio); and Tony (Daniel Brühl), a maitre d’ who will do anything for Adam because he’s in love with the guy.
The cast is so star-studded that the first half of the movie feels like a mad dash. Uma Thurman drops by momentarily to play an exacting restaurant critic. Emma Thompson shows up as Adam’s wise therapist. Next-big-thing starlets Alicia Vikander and Lily James each make fleeting appearances. (The mad dash wasn’t entirely a success; “Fifty Shades of Grey” star Jamie Dornan also shot scenes that were cut from the film.)
When the movie eventually narrows its focus to the task of actual cooking, things get interesting. The behind-the-scenes glimpse of high pressure restaurant work – informed by celebrity chef Marcus Wareing, who worked as a consultant on the film – is both fascinating and horrifying, and not just because the chefs keep dipping their fingers in all the sauces. On opening night, Adam has a meltdown, channeling Gordon Ramsay as he throws plates at the wall, roughs Helene and berates everyone in sight.
So this is how sausage gets made.
Shooting inside a cramped kitchen can’t have been easy, but director John Wells leverages his experience on such kinetic, highly choreographed shows as “E.R.” to effectively capture the action.
As the opening of “Burnt” proves, Steven Knight’s script is efficient. And while some of the dialogue can be overly expository, the script is also peppered with snappy exchanges.
Knight also wrote the script for last year’s cooking movie “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” But “Burnt” feels more authentic than either that film or Jon Favreau’s meringue-light “Chef.” Warm fuzzies are not on this menu. After all, how often do we see chefs onscreen actually scrubbing stove tops after the dinner service has ended?
It’s not pretty, but it captures something that few cooking movies do: reality.
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