Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper follow-up has been great. First Serena got taken to the woodshed, then Aloha ate sh*t, and now Burnt has met with the resounding indifference of critics and audiences alike and tanked hard. Even if Joy pans out, BCoop is having an epically bad run in 2015, like the opposite of the McConaissance. Worse than Aloha but not as bad as Serena, Burnt is the latest of Cooper’s questionable career choices to make it into theaters this year. The movie revolves around Adam Jones—which was once the title of the movie until someone decided to set them up for a bunch of “Ya burnt!” puns—a bad boy chef and recovering addict trying to rebuild his reputation after flaming out in allegedly spectacular style years before.
Cooper has actually done the bad boy chef thing before, back in 2005 with the short-lived Fox show Kitchen Confidential. That was loosely based on Anthony Bourdain’s memoir, and though Burnt has no affiliation with Bourdain or his book, it shares similar DNA. Adam Jones is a rockstar chef in Paris until his booze hound/junkie ways get the better of him, and then he disappears to dry out before returning to London to try and get a three-star Michelin rating. We never know exactly what happened in Paris, which wouldn’t be such a big deal if everyone didn’t bring it up all the time. The more characters reference a thing without ever actually explaining it, the more the audience feels left out by the narrative and the more likely they are to start tuning out. It’s a fine line between over-explaining sh*t no one cares about and giving enough details to build a reliable narrative, but Burnt is way too stingy with information.
What does come through loud and clear is that Adam is a raging asshole. Thanks to Bourdain and several iterations of Gordon Ramsay Shouting, people expect chefs to be assholes, but Adam is unrelentingly unlikeable. He smashes plates, throws food, berates assistants, and though Cooper can deliver withering zingers with acidic perfection, watching Adam tear down the lone female in his kitchen, and then nurture romantic feelings toward her, is deeply uncomfortable. Sienna Miller stars as Helene, a talented sous chef Adam recruits for his new restaurant. She doesn’t have much to work with but she’s serviceable, and her history with Cooper feeds a natural chemistry and camaraderie between them. None of that helps, though, when we’re watching Adam belittle and abuse Helene before falling for her. The whole romantic subplot is really off putting.
Director John Wells (August: Osage County) frames some decent food porn, though it doesn’t top last year’s Jon Favreau cooking movie, Chef, and the editing uses a lot of fast, hard cuts, mimicking the rhythm of chopping vegetables. Burnt is competently made, if unimaginative. A movie about a temperamental genius rebuilding his life after a spectacular flame out could use some dirt and worn corners, but the environment of Burnt is weirdly antiseptic. Cooper is at his most Cool Guy, with leather jackets and perma-stubble, and no matter how reprehensible Adam acts, the film makes no attempt to show him as anything but a Genius At Work.
Adam doesn’t have to be likeable, or even redeemable, but in order for the story to work he needs to be compelling. Cooper manages to make Adam halfway engaging on the strength of his scathing putdowns alone, but it’s not enough to overcome the discomfort of that romantic subplot, or to make us root for Adam to get his three stars. Why we should root for this guy to get anything is a mystery—it feels more like we ought to be hoping one of his underlings drowns him in a soup tureen. Maybe Burnt once looked good on paper, but the end result is a lackluster movie with no personality about a total asshole you actively hope sets himself on fire. Not even Bradley Cooper speaking French can save this movie.