Burnt
Starz / Anchor Bay // R // $34.99 // January 26, 2016
Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted January 29, 2016
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The Film:

Consuming and enjoying food is one of the few universal commonalities among the human population, but once you get any deeper than that -- flavors, textures, nutrition -- everyone's tastes can veer in many different directions. Burnt, the new drama from ER and August: Osage County director John Wells, concerns itself only with the upper-upper echelon of culinary flavor profiles, centered on a renowned chef whose egotism leads him to care less about people actually enjoying their food and more about the world basking in the greatness of his skill. It's a significant hurdle to cross in a story about the artistry of sustenance while the camerawork zooms in on dainty mushrooms, sparse greens, and colorful globs of who-knows-what, where the details of this food being cooked are markedly less important than the self-importance of their creator. Another pompous, edgy character from Bradley Cooper blends with mostly predictable career resurrection theatrics here, serving up palatable dramatic confections without enough substance to make them satisfying.

Through some customary narration, Cooper's voice directs our attention to chef Adam Jones, whose prominence in his name-making Parisian restaurant came crashing down due to his drug and alcohol abuse. After fleeing the country and living out a self-mandated suspension for several years, largely out of guilt for the damage he caused to both the restaurant and to his coworkers, Jones travels to London to restore his name by dropping in on old contacts and informing them of his mission: to earn a third Michelin Star in their dining guide at a new restaurant, a rare feat. After getting back in touch with coworkers -- notably Tony (Daniel Bruhl), the host at his French restaurant and now the manager of his family's hotel -- and hunting down new, relatively cheap talent across the city of London, Jones' plan to formulate a new upscale eatery begins to take shape. His overly strict demands for perfection from his staff and his general coldness to people run the risk of ruining his second chance, though, necessary as they may be.

Jones receives the label of being an "arrogant prick" early on in Burnt, to which someone familiar with the rock-star chef retorts: "Yeah, he's a chef". That's essentially the scope of what's conveyed about the forgiven narcissistic nature of this antiheroic protagonist, whose condescension and hostility come across as an amplified version of someone like Gordon Ramsay from Hell's Kitchen: vulgar, abusive, and needlessly destructive in his kitchen, like a military drill instructor going too far. It'd be one thing if those were the attributes on the surface of a chef with a true passion for cuisine, but Jones rarely displays any admiration for the craft itself, seeming like he's only interested in obtaining the prestige afforded to him by his perfection -- even though he really couldn't get to where he's at today without some of that love. Intentional or not, Jones' story suffers as a character drama because of his unpleasant demeanor, generating displays of rage without the depth that'd give meaning to the dishes he prepares.

It doesn't help that Burnt heavily relies on the acclaim already earned by Adam Jones during his self-destructive pursuits in France, making it seem like they weren't all that destructive to his career in the first place. From wooing past critics (a Brit-accented cameo from Uma Thurman) to obtaining the crucial funding for his new restaurant (with the stipulation that he passes blood tests and sees a therapist, warmly played by Emma Thompson), the lack of actual resistance that Jones encounters while getting himself reestablished in London sends a frustrating message about his pursuits and approach to the industry. In a word, he's empowered -- overpowered -- to a point that nearly makes him into the magical deity he thinks himself to be, able to seduce lesbians and force prospective employees to admit that they'd actually pay money just to work for him. Considering the roguishly insufferable and charmless manner that Bradley Cooper competently embodies as Adam Jones, this persuasion rings false.

Ah, but that's all part of what's to be expected out of Burnt: this emphasis on a hardened and unyielding persona that'll eventually soften under the warmth of enlightenment about the importance of community instead of personal prestige. Amid beautifully-photographed shots of fine cuisine dropped in between curt nods and yells of "Yes, chef!" among the staff, director Wells underscores the pressure and rigors of that trajectory toward perfecting their kitchen, while being evasive about how, exactly, Jones' experiences there shape him into a different individual than the plate-tossing whirling dervish we grow to know. The moments when Burnt actually does strike genuine emotional chords -- a scene involving an unexpected request for a birthday cake, for instance -- rely on calculated Hollywood sentiment that doesn't extend naturally from the chef's established demeanor, especially when it comes to the barbed quasi-romantic interactions with a dedicated single-mother cook, Helene (an acute and likable Sienna Miller), and how she absorbs the lessons he has to offer.

The meltdowns, the escalations in tension, and the progression of time towards the restaurant's crucial Michelin evaluation rarely stray from the formula, and Burnt lacks the conviction to experiment even when it almost shakes things up surrounding expectations of what's to come. By that point, it's difficult to choose whether to root for Adam Jones to reap the rewards of his determination or suffer the consequence of his negative karma and belligerence, largely because it's uncertain whether he'd appreciate anything other than that extra star to his name. His staff, his boss, and the people who rely on him -- including his culinary nemesis, Reece (Matthew Rhys) -- are what present a strong-enough argument for the restaurant itself to succeed, adding the necessary emotional component to the culmination of his efforts. Pulling for the chef to come out on top, to celebrate the fruit of his labors from such a young age and his dedication to staying clean while fully getting his career back on track, would've made for a far more nourishing final course, though.


Video and Audio:

Burnt brings a polished, beautiful presentation to the table through Starz/Anchor Bay's 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatment, though not without a few imperfections that might throw Adam Jones off the rails here and there. The most appealing an colorful elements of the transfer naturally come in the food, a striking array capably projected by the Blu-ray: the vivid greens of a foamy tarragon drink and salad; the yellows of tiny mushrooms; the bold reds and browns of seared meat and radishes. White garments and steel surfaces are far more frequent, though, which capably blend with the contrast balance for clean, bright, and natural grayscale shades. Other black levels err to the bluish side of things, though, noticeable in both mid-range and darker sequences. Close-ups reveal admirable but unremarkable skin tones, but the crispness of details is worth commending, from the stubble on Bradley Cooper's face to strands of Sienna Miller's hair. Expected degrees of digital smoothness don't detract from the transfers clarity too much, rendering a sufficiently appetizing high-definition transfer.

The preparation of food invites a cornucopia of little sound effects, from the sear of meat to the shuffling of plates, all little delights to be discovered in this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The bustle of a busy kitchen engages the full breadth of the surround channels, with clanking dinnerware and sizzling plates replicating the experience of maneuvering around the cramped space. Harder effects, like the smashing of plates against the wall or the slam of metal pans against the surface, deliver a natural and resonant punch. Verbal clarity remains moderately clear and aware of mid-range bass levels, though it could handle the transparency of European accents a tad better. Energetic music keeps the film's pace going with robust rhythm and delicate atmosphere. Audibility could be taken a notch higher and the effects could be fuller, but by and large Burnt delivers in the areas where it needs. Subtitles appear throughout the film in French and Italian, but are available in full English and Spanish subs, as well as a Spanish 5.1 track.


Special Features:

A dryly insightful Audio Commentary with Director John Wells and Executive Chef Consultant Marcus Wareing alternates between discussing the actual production of the film and the realities of operating a kitchen like that in Burnt. Wells touches on locations and researching the hours and operations of the profession, while coaxing further elaboration out of Wareing about the arduous days, the life of a young upstart in the culinary world, and how many chefs like Adam Jones are out there in the industry. The tempo remains very low-key and the topics get drawn out across scenes, but the info they reveal about how they reached the authenticity in the film manages to hold one's attention enough to stick with it in spurts.

The rest of the extras are led off by fairly general but enjoyable press-kit feature, In the Kitchen with Bradley Cooper (23:51, 16x9 HD), though the collection of behind-the-scenes images, interviews, and extensive clips from the film aren't as closely centered on the actor as it sounds. It does, however, explore the details that went into making the cooking and operations look as genuine and accurate as possible, from presentation to the pains and hours. Director John Wells, consultant Marcus Wareing, Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, and other cast and crew make appearances as they discuss the plot, tone, and craftsmanship of the film. Also available are a trio of Q&A Highlights with Director and Cast (23:45, 16x9 HD), conducted at the Screen Actors Guild and the NYC Wine and Food Festival in October of 2015: the first features Bradley Cooper elaborating on the film and his process; the second expands to the director and cast for a broader-scoped discussion; and the third features four of the actors. Five Deleted Scenes (9:59, 16x9 HD) with optional director's commentary round out the supplements.


Final Thoughts:

If the only intention of Burnt was to make television chefs look less flagrant and more even-tempered, then director John Wells would've succeeded with flying colors. His depiction of a notorious-yet-talented cook who's out to remove the tarnish from his name also captures the energy of an upscale kitchen splendidly, aptly supported by Cooper and the rest of the actors. Watching how Adam Jones unleashes his arrogant, demanding personality upon those around him -- and seeing how everyone caves to his whims -- makes for an unsatisfying character drama stuffed with cliches, though, one that loses the flavor of its redemption story along the way. Starz/Anchor Bay present Burnt in an appealing audiovisual package with a menu of fine special features, including an audio commentary and a collection of Q&A responses, but the journey into Adam Jones's vicious kitchen isn't one worth taking more than once or twice. Rent It.


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