Director: John Wells
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Alicia Vikander
Running Time: 101 minutes
This review contains spoilers
I didn’t have particularly high hopes for Burnt after watching the trailer, but decided to see it anyway because it stars several of my favourite actors. Somehow, the film managed to disappoint my already low expectations.
The most glaring problem with Burnt is that its protagonist isn’t the faintest bit likeable. Adam (Bradley Cooper) is arrogant, charmless, and completely self-obsessed. At best, he’s a petulant man-child, and at worst a manipulative bully who resorts to yelling and physical aggression when he doesn’t get his way. Watching him throw yet another plate of scallops at the wall while screaming about how useless everyone around him is, you have to wonder how the writers ever thought that the audience was going to warm to him. In their minds, apparently chucking things around and shouting is the same thing as being passionate and driven. Adam is yet another example of the “Gifted White Guy”: a character who’s allowed to treat everyone around him like crap because he’s a reasonably attractive white bloke who’s good at his job. Over the course of the film, he goes from an aggressive, conceited prat to someone that vaguely resembles a semi-decent person, and apparently we’re supposed to applaud him for that. At the end, when Adam does, inevitably, earn his third Michelin star, it basically feels like he’s being rewarded for being an ass. A more satisfying ending, frankly, would have been the French drug dealers who are after him breaking his legs.
The film would have been far more watchable if it had instead been about Helene (Sienna Miller), a talented chef and single mother who is infinitely more likeable and interesting than Adam. Besides the fact that, of course, in a film as predictable as this the lead male must end up with the lead female, I couldn’t for the life of me work out what Helene sees in him. First, he tells her to meet him at Burger King just so that he can lecture her on why a Double Whopper is basically French peasant cuisine, which is probably meant to make him look enlightened and down to earth, but instead just makes him seem a patronising git. Next, when she quite understandably turns down his job offer, he gets her fired so that she has to work for him. And then, when Helene does begrudgingly come to work at his restaurant, he ends up violently manhandling her and screaming into her face about how terrible she is. Watching Adam so quickly go from belittling and abusing her to falling for her is frankly unsettling, and I didn’t buy into their budding romance at all.
The only good thing that can be said for Burnt is that it has an incredible cast, but somehow even this is wasted. Emma Thompson, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Rhys, and Uma Thurman all turn up in small, thankless roles, most of which are just mouthpieces for how great Adam supposedly is. Rather than actually taking the time to make him likeable, the writers have to have people tell us that he is. Vikander, who was so brilliant in Ex Machina and A Royal Affair, is completely wasted as a still-infatuated old flame, who pops up for all of ten minutes for the sole purpose of staring adoringly at Adam. Rhys fares slightly better, playing a rival chef who understandably hates him, but even he ultimately ends up telling him how wonderful he is. The actor given the most thankless role, however, is Thurman. The moment I knew I was going to hate the film was when her food critic turned up just to tell us that, despite being a lesbian, she once spent the night with Adam. Besides being incredibly homophobic (because of course all lesbians would happily sleep with a man if he was hot enough!), the scene is horribly unsubtle. It felt like the writers grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you, shouting “see how attractive he is! Even lesbians cannot resist his moody charms!”
Speaking of homophobia, for me the film’s most frustrating waste of a brilliant actor is Daniel Brühl, who plays Tony, a maître d’hôtel who Adam bullies into giving him a job because he knows Tony’s been in love with him for years. Brühl is my favourite actor and watching him try to do his best with such an unrewarding role was painful. For starters, as with Helene, I didn’t understand how he could be in love with Adam when the guy is such a prat, particularly considering that he knew him at the height of his arrogance and addiction problems. The scene between the two men that angered me most was when Adam, delighted that he may still be get his third Michelin star, grabs Tony and kisses him on the mouth. I’m sure it was meant to be funny, but instead it just served as another example of how completely insensitive Adam is to everyone else’s feelings. Predictably, the film’s only major gay character is there for the sole purpose of pining miserably over the straight male lead who will never love him back.
To sum up, Burnt is a bland, unsatisfying film with a horrible protagonist, a predictable storyline, and poor writing that does the film’s great cast no justice. If it were a meal, I would send it back.