“One of the only merits of the film is the ability to showcase the hustle of a restaurant kitchen”

by Steve Pulaski

John Wells’ Burnt asks us to suspend our disbelief of characters and their actions as if we’re watching one of the multitude of Marvel films that have graced the multiplexes in the last few years. It’s a film that gives us a contemptible lead character, who is contemptible without merit. He doesn’t have the swagger and intelligence of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street and he doesn’t have the charisma or the troubled qualities of your average anti-hero. He’s a miserable, nasty human being, who manages to make everyone around him think so irrationally that they serve him despite their ability to find more appealing and admirable work elsewhere. I’m only reminded, yet again, of comedian/political pundit Bill Maher’s comments on the new Steve Jobs film, in which he said that film is definitive proof that Americans love movies about a**holes.

The miserable character in question is Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper), a chef who strives to make “orgasmic” cuisines for his customers and create an experience where they do not come to expect the same kind of meal each time they go out to eat. Unlike most chefs, he fears consistency and rote process, so he meticulously chops, stirs, cooks, and prepares food in different ways in effort to accentuate different flavors. A recovering drug addict, Jones lost the restaurant he once owned and is now looking to rebuild his empire by hiring people like Michel (The Intouchables‘ Omar Sy), somebody he screwed over at his old restaurant, and Helene (Sienna Miller), a renowned chef he implores to quit her job in order to work for him. His ultimate goal is to earn three Michelin stars, which will, in turn, make him one of the most credible and highly rated restaurants in Paris.

Directed by
John Wells
Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl
Release Date
30 October 2015
Steve’s Grade: D

Jones’ relationship with Helene is the first problematic one, simply because Helene is less a character and more an object for Jones to fire insults at like he’s Gordon Ramsay and this is a film adaptation of Kitchen Nightmares. To see Jones physically and mentally abuse Helene is bad enough, mainly because it’s so caustically handled and unwarranted, but the coffin-sealing nail is that Helene continues to work for him, despite having a better option. The same goes for Michel, who doesn’t need to work for the guy who back-stabbed him. Both characters are blindsided by this faux-idea of greatness that Jones apparently exudes with every sentence he says and motion he mistakes. He’s an empty vessel that strives to be “the best” in his field, and those are less character traits in this film than reasons alone to justify abuse, betrayal, arrogance, and cruel violence throughout the course of the film.

It’s as if Jones is a God and his actions make all the other characters act irrationally. This also wouldn’t be so bad if we were supposed to take characters like Helene seriously. Helene is yet another character so ill-conceived that it shortchanges Sienna Miller’s ability to captivate. Much like in “American Sniper,” where we usually saw her character on the phone with, surprise, Bradley Cooper’s, crying and pleading for him to come home, here we see her in tears again being at the mercy of Cooper’s own self-absorption.

And yet, I could forgive all of this if Jones wasn’t such a flat, static character that lacks any kind of dynamic qualities. He’s a faceless brute, so cheerless and witless, that I shivered at the thought that I was supposed to watch a one-hundred-minute film with him. If he had some insight, some charisma, or even a shred of intelligence, like, once again, Steve Jobs in Danny Boyle’s new film, then he’d be at least a fascinating and layered presence. Instead, he’s an empty coward that abuses in the name of “good food” and that’s enough to make you lose your appetite.

One of the only merits of the film is the ability to showcase the hustle of a restaurant kitchen that doesn’t feel like a reality show or an over-dramatized rendition of Hell’s Kitchen. The energy in the kitchen scenes slowly rises like a flame in a pan of vegetables, and the results, especially during the scene when two restaurant critics are presumed to have arrived, work in the film’s favor and almost effectively take us out of the emptiness of this entire experience.

Wells directed both The Company Men and August: Osage County, two dramas I hold in high regard because of their conflicted, interesting characters and their biting dialog and social commentary. Burnt is the result of what happens when a film is robbed of all three of those features and leaves us with nothing substantial to chew on other than characters that are either miserable and bitter or void of any of characterization.