If “Burnt,” starring Bradley Cooper, feels slightly familiar, you might be remembering Cooper’s short-lived turn in the TV series “Kitchen Confidential” about a decade or so ago. That series was based on the volatile, no-holds-barred memoir of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and in “Burnt,” Cooper plays a volatile, no-holds-barred celebrity chef who’s trying to make both amends and a comeback. Imagine it as a “Kitchen Confidential 2,” wherein Cooper’s brilliant but troubled chef character has kicked the almost all of more self-destructive bad habits he picked up in the wild and wooly world of high-end restaurants.
To be fair, “Burnt” is a decidedly different beast than the 30-minute TV comedy. Written by Steven Knight and Michael Kalesniko and directed by John Wells, the screenplay attempts to plumb the depths of Adam’s psyche, while the film’s style depicts his obsessive, meticulous dedication to his craft. The story picks up during Adam’s self-ordained penance for his sins, shucking a million oysters in a casual New Orleans joint. He’s been driven out of Paris, where he made his career, earning a couple of Michelin stars along the way. But he flamed out in fantastic fashion, which we know based on the extreme reactions of his former compatriots, who have now decamped to London.
Adam’s superpower is that everyone’s a little bit in love with him, and Cooper’s electric blue eyes and the sarcastic charm he brings to the performance lend themselves well to this. He talks his way into running the restaurant at an upscale London hotel, managed by his old buddy Tony (Daniel Brühl), and even gets some of his old pals to come work for him, along with a few new faces. In prepping the restaurant to earn him his third Michelin star, he works everyone down to the bone. He pulls all-nighters with chef Helene (Sienna Miller), whom he has manipulated into working for him; he screams and yells and flings tools and food.
“Burnt” doesn’t overly concern itself with the details of Adam’s brilliance — it’s repeatedly alluded to and whisked over in montages, but the problem is that his talent is assumed, not proven on screen. Much of the story is told in montages, compressing time and eliding details that might prove him to us. Everyone around him excuses his bad behavior because of his genius in the kitchen, but if the audience can’t completely buy into it, then that’s a fatal flaw.
The film is at its best when it reaches into Adam’s background to try and uncover his demons. This comes out in scenes with the excellent Emma Thompson, as a therapist who gives him weekly drug tests, and with Helene’s daughter Lily (Lexi Benbow-Hart), whom Adam seems to relate to best. But this psychological deconstruction gets swept away in the frenzy over the Michelin stars and a very misguided subplot about a French drug dealer collecting his debts.
“Burnt” is impeccably made, with slick food photography and rapid-fire editing that tickles the senses. There is potential to dig into some interesting themes around psychology, power and control in the swaggering Wild West of restaurant kitchens, but “Burnt” gets distracted by petty dramas. Without enough meat on the bones of this story, it’s just not as satisfying as it could be, evaporating quickly into thin air.