It is easy to write a negative review of a movie–especially a movie like “Burnt.” Oscar-nominee Bradley Cooper stars as a beleaguered chef aiming for his third Michelin Star, in which the negative phrases to describe its inadequacies are baked into the movie (I did it right there). Critics will use culinary puns like “lacks seasoning,” or “all sizzle, no steak”, but really, why write about a film that is simply earnestly bad?
So far, I have been tepid with a lot of the films that I have watched and reviewed for The Odyssey. After watching “Burnt”, this is the first time I felt absolute hate and disgust for a film I needed to review. The question I begun asking myself at the end of the movie is, why am I going to write this review for a movie that relatively just does not matter? “Steve Jobs,” which I also did not like, matters. It subverts the form of the traditional biopic in a way that does not work. There is a cultural reason to discuss the risks it takes and why it does not work. The same goes for my other reviews for “bland” films like “Everest” and “The Walk,” both of which have different forms of cinematic pleasures while lacking in basic character development.
The point is, I write about these films to generate some sort of discussion, whether it is high art or low art. Truthfully, no one is going to read this as a consumer report to decide whether or not they want to watch “Burnt.” There has been little buzz on this film through word of mouth, critics and marketing; this is tough for a film that is being released in 2,900 theaters Halloween weekend. Yet, I am going to write about this because this weekend’s wide releases features are “Scout’s Guide to a Zombie Apocalypse” and “Our Brand is Crisis.” By the end credits, I threw up my notebook and asked myself, “What for?”
What is disappointing about “Burnt” is that the film is made by competent filmmakers. Steven Knight, the screenwriter, has written interesting movies with crap. Yet, at one point, in order to blatantly spew exposition to the audience, one of his characters compares the Michelin Stars to Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda. The three act structure of the film feels like it literally came out of a Screenwriting 101 with stakes that never exceed achieving three Michelin Stars.
John Wells, the director, was the original showrunner for “ER” and director of “August Osage County.” He is not an auteur, per se. Nothing about his films seem to show what type of stories he wants to tell. He is the perfect show runner. But, when it comes to film, there is a lack of understanding as to why food is essential to storytelling.
There is no connection between the soul of food and the soul of the characters. Cooper’s rebel chef speaks about the purity of food as an experience and creative concoction, but food is filmed here like a “Chef’s Table” episode–as something pristine, but no meaning is ever attached to it. The food is just artisanal. Compare that with the way that food is portrayed in a much better food-centric film, “Chef”. That film establishes food as love and personal through homey lighting and the orgasmic expressions of those who eat it. There is soul in the food there. Here, it is a prop, not an extension of the character.
The film was produced by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey, and the chef consultant is Mario Batali. With that pedigree of chefs, it’s no wonder that the goal of this film is portray a chef as the coolest iconoclastic artists on the planet. At the beginning of the film, Cooper’s character atones for his sins as a drug addict, by silently shucking a million oysters in New Orleans just to waltz right into his friend’s London restaurant wearing a leather jacket. He compares his assemblage of cooks and sous chefs to that of the samurais of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”. It is absolutely gag-inducing, especially when the stakes are so low. The worst someone can do is put too much cayenne in one of the $200 dishes served to the Micheline Staff.
What is especially frustrating is that there is potential for a story here. There’s nothing better than a chef who cannot live outside the pressure cooker of the kitchen and turns to drugs before falling off the deep end. That story of atonement is the underlying reason why Anthony Bourdain shows have been so special in the past decades. Underlying all of his travels, you know that he has gone through incredibly tough times, and the shared culture of food is a way out of that abyss. There is no reason that a film explicitly about this should not bring about the same pleasures.
But, in the end, why even harp on the failures of “Burnt?” It is an awful movie, but no one who reads this was going to watch it anyway. It does not deserve the attention that I just devoted to it. Cooper’s character says at one point, about a dish of food, “If it’s not perfect, just throw it away and restart.” Sadly, that advice was not followed when making this movie..