Friday, October 30, 2015

Burnt: Overly scorched

Burnt (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang

We’re supposed to root for this guy — and it shouldn’t be difficult; we are, after all, talking about Bradley Cooper — but his character is too damn mean.

Dragged against her will into joining Adam (Bradley Cooper) in the kitchen of his
restaurant-to-be, Helene (Sienna Miller) almost immediately is the target of a belittling
tirade by her new boss. Which she tolerates, thereby losing all of our respect for her.
Redemption stories get their juice from the intensity of atonement: The deeper the downward spiral, the more we cheer the dogged climb back to salvation and forgiveness.

That said, this story’s protagonist is such a temper tantrum-throwing bully — such a relentless prick — that viewers likely will write him off as unworthy, long before he tries to get his act together. Scripters Steven Knight and Michael Kalesniko give him too many unpalatable virtues, and — as directed by John Wells — Cooper obligingly delivers too many thoroughly persuasive rages.

Matters probably aren’t helped by the fact that this story takes place in the world of London and Paris’ haute cuisine restaurants, where screaming enfant terrible chefs browbeat their staffs into delivering the perfect artistic touch to dishes with portions so small they wouldn’t satisfy a mouse, which then are served to über-rich snots who smack their lips and roll their eyes over imagined sensory marvels.

We live in a post-Gordon Ramsey world, where — rather weirdly — boorish behavior by celebrity chefs has come to be synonymous with gastronomic perfection. I ain’t buyin’ it. Frankly, this film’s most interesting moments come during the occasional montages that find our hero (?) exploring food carts, back-alley stalls, bodegas, street markets and even fast-food restaurants, while searching for intriguing spices, sauces or seasonings.

Once back in his high-end kitchen, applying said discoveries to laughably over-decorated menu items ... not so much.

But maybe I’m just not enough of a foodie.

All that said...

We meet Adam Jones (Cooper) at an oyster shack in New Orleans, where he has spent the past few years doing self-prescribed penance for previous bad behavior. His path to spiritual salvation: the shucking of one million oysters, a task he has recorded meticulously in a pocket notebook. He reaches this goal as the story begins, and then he’s off to Paris, scene of his previous extremely bad behavior.

Back in the not-so-distant day, Adam was head chef at a two-Michelin-star restaurant, where he held court with fellow chefs Reece (Matthew Rhys) and Michel (Omar Sy), and pluperfect maître d’hôtel Tony (Daniel Brühl). As the highly talented protégé of a legendary Parisian chef, Adam could do no wrong; he also indulged in a torrid relationship with his mentor’s daughter, Anne Marie (Alicia Vikander).

But it all went to hell in a haze of drugs, alcohol, promiscuous sex and every other vice Adam could embrace. He flamed out with some truly atrocious acts, and then disappeared; friends and colleagues thought him dead.

Now the prodigal has returned, and those same friends and colleagues are far less than thrilled.

But Adam is determined, even if regaining trust is an uphill struggle. His charm offensive notwithstanding — and Cooper’s disarming smile can move mountains — his motives will seem questionable to those who understand the dynamics of addition recovery. This, of course, is the heart of the story.

Adam is back because he covets the elusive third Michelin star; that’s obviously more important than expressing heartfelt regret to all those he wronged, and seeking their absolution.

Tony has relocated to London, where he runs the family hotel; Adam begs, pleads and cajoles his former friend’s father into bankrolling a new restaurant venture. The deal comes with strings, though; Adam must submit to weekly blood tests given by Dr. Rosshilde (the always reliable Emma Thompson), a psychiatrist who immediately spots a wealth of undiagnosed and stubbornly disregarded issues in her new patient.

Thus, “Adam Scott at The Langham” makes its bid to become London’s newest and most prestigious dining establishment.

Adam’s hand-picked brigade de cuisine expands to include all sorts of underlings, most notably Max (Riccardo Scamarcio) and David (Sam Keeley). Then there’s Helene (Sienna Miller), the chef at a rival restaurant, whose way with a peppe e cacio tantalizes Adam’s taste buds; he “arranges” for her to join the team, initially quite against her will.

Helene is a hard-working single mother with an adorable young daughter (Lexi Benbow-Hart, as Lily). Miller is credibly spunky as this feisty, independent woman, who sees right through Adam. That said, she — like everybody else — recognizes the talent behind the exterior arrogance, and does her best to submerge her instinctive loathing.

The struggle is plain on Miller’s face, and we keep waiting for Helene to punch Adam right in his condescending mouth.

That’s perhaps the hardest narrative pill to swallow: that all of these people, several of them quite talented in their own culinary right, would continue to put up with their impatient martinet of a boss. Accepting this becomes even harder, as Adam flies into increasingly self-indulgent rages.

That’s the ongoing problem: He crosses the line of acceptable behavior so many times, and with such cruel and belittling ferocity, that he loses all sympathy.

On top of which, Helene’s arrival troubles Tony, who knows full well — from previous experience — that a woman in Adam’s world spells bad news.

Whew. Such a load of tempestuous character dynamics. And did I mention the nasty drug dealer, who demands that Adam settle a large debt from previous transgressions? (Definitely one plot contrivance too many.)

Knight and Kalesniko’s script focuses almost exclusively on the ruptured-but-mending dynamic between Adam and Tony, and the fractious-but-thawing dynamic between Adam and Helene. While all three actors are engaging as their characters wrestle with these relationship issues, it’s a shame we don’t spend more time with the sidebar folks.

Sy, in particular, is far too strong an actor — recall his excellent work in 2011’s The Intouchables — to be sidelined so shamelessly. Scamarcio’s Max also seems to have a provocative back-story, and Keeley’s David is a likable chap. Given that Wells was so adept at granting equal time to every member of the huge ensemble cast of TV’s ER, earlier in his career, it’s a pity he doesn’t do the same here.

Wells and cinematographer Adriano Goldman also spend considerable time with montages and tight close-ups of food prep, whether chopping, slicing, frying or sprinkling with dainty flowers and micro-mushrooms. The intent is obvious: We’re supposed to be dazzled by all the culinary legerdemain, made ravenous by all the exotic dishes framed with such loving precision.

But it doesn’t work. This is frou frou food, which too often looks silly, rather than appetizing. These montages don’t have near the mouth-watering intensity of similar scenes in, say, Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, or Maria Ripoll’s Tortilla Soup. Those films always leave me famished; this one ... not so much.

To the credit of all involved, things come together nicely in this story’s third act, which boasts one deliciously nasty surprise, along with (finally!) an honest depiction of humility, and an acknowledgment of the proper way to deal with addiction recovery.

Whether you’re still on Team Adam by this point, however, is up for grabs.

Much as I wanted to be, I couldn’t do it.

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