Up until TV reality chef Gordon ‘effing’ Ramsey came along, the idea of working in an upscale restaurant kitchen had an appeal. Watching the television personality scream, drop f-bombs and generally throw tantrums at the staff pretty much put an end to that daydream. If anyone was willing to suffer the kind of treatment and humiliation Ramsey routinely dolled out, surely they would have signed up for Boot Camp in the Marines.
In the new comedy/drama Burnt from director John Wells, Bradley Cooper plays Adam Jones, an American bad-boy chef with a history and it’s not a particularly good one. Without ever knowing all the details, what we can tell is that Jones messed everything up while working in Paris. He learned his craft, but he partied hard, drank heavily, chased everything in a skirt and wracked up a massive drug debt, which he still owes. He also played dirty tricks on other people’s restaurants. In one particular episode mentioned in passing, he released rats in an associate’s kitchen then called the Paris health inspector to have the place shut down.
In an introductory voice over, Jones explains a few things about himself and his worth as a chef. By all accounts, despite the bad behavior, he was a first class chef. We know that because he keeps telling us. “Some nights I was even as good as I thought I was,” he declares with his usual touch of arrogance as we watch him prepare something mouth-wateringly succulent for his restaurant. But his time of sniffing, snorting and chasing women took its toll. His conduct and the subsequent meltdown that followed closed the restaurant, and Jones was burnt to a crisp.
Even before the film has properly begun you’re already feeling a resistance against this guy. He may be played by the likeable Bradley Cooper but that hardly softens the blow. Jones is such an overwhelmingly walking nightmare that realizing you’ll be spending the next couple of hours in his company makes Boot Camp all the more attractive. If there’s one thing obvious it’s that the film is going to be about Jones’ redemption and by the story’s conclusion we should see a character turnaround, but the journey to get to that point might be more daunting than expected. When talented London chef, Helene (Sienna Miller) first meets him, her initial reaction sums everything up. “He’s an arrogant prick,” she states.
After spending more than two years drying up, ignoring the drugs and generally hiding away working in a New Orleans oyster bar, Jones declares, “Today’s the last day of my penance.” Believing he’s recovered and that his kitchen mojo has returned, in true Jones style he simply walks out of the oyster bar without handing in a notice and leaves the place stranded. Helene’s colorful character observation remains. Nothing’s really changed.
Jones’ plan is to be the best chef in Europe with his own restaurant and a three star rating from Michelin, and he flies to London to get things moving. “Ever seen the movie Seven Samurai?” he asks his therapist (Emma Thompson). “That’s how I want my chefs to be.” Arriving back on the restaurant scene, everyone he once knew in Paris now seems to be in London, including Michel (Omar Sy), the guy whose restaurant was overrun with well-placed rats, his old maitre d’ acquaintance, Tony (Daniel Bruhl), and the daughter of the Parisienne restaurant owner whose kitchen Jones was responsible for closing down, Anne Marie (Alicia Vikander).
With pressure and a lot of fast-talking, even though everyone he meets has a memory of something bad that happened back in Paris, somehow he gets his own kitchen and his samurai staff, including Michel and single-mother Helene. But once there, those Ramsey traits of continual verbal abuse re-emerge. Plates are thrown, food is splattered against the walls, and everyone has their moment of humiliation. At one point, Jones becomes so enraged at Helene, he physically grabs her collar and shakes her. “You don’t get to talk back!” he screams after Helene makes her stand against one of his several tirades. Before that eventual redemption arrives, whatever bad thing occurs to Jones – including a beating from those wanting their drug debt paid – he deserves it. He’s not fun to watch.
Originally titled Chef until another movie with the same name arrived, Burnt does nothing to enhance respect for what happens in the kitchen. The pressure those workers are under with someone like Jones screaming down their necks borders on frightening; at least, that is, in the way things are portrayed here, but at least the presence of Sienna Miller, Emma Thompson, and brief appearance from Uma Thurman – she’s surprisingly convincing and initially unrecognizable as a London restaurant critic writing for the Evening Standard – helps make proceedings slightly more palatable.
Despite the one moment of sympathy for Jones when events with Michelin and those potential three stars takes a surprising turn, it’s difficult to care. Tolerance for someone you dislike this much is not easy to overcome, even if the potential for an eventual turnaround is presumably on the horizon. If this insufferable character existed – and by all accounts he’s in kitchens all over the world – you wouldn’t want to know him.
Besides, how come back in ’87 Babette could make an equally delectable feast for her clients with no temper tantrum or staff humiliation and still get the same results?
MPAA Rating: R Length: 100 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)