RIORI Vol 3, Installment 38: John Wells’ “Burnt” (2015)


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The Crew…

Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Brühl, Sam Keeley and Riccardo Scamarcio, with Uma Thurman and Emma Thompson.


The Story…

“God gives us the nuts, but He does not crack them.”

That was Kafka, and we knowing as much as we can from his writings, such existential thinking requires a bit of time to digest.

Speaking of digestion, disgraced chef Adam Jones has been trying to turn his life around—both personally and professionally—and get back into the swing of things. He’s relocated to London, trying to reignite the fire that torched him so back in the early days of his profession.

Also, and not so quietly, pursuing a third Michelin star as well as validation as a productive, upright member of proper culinary society.

In other words, Adam wants respect. Within and without.


The Rant…

A millennium ago here at RIORI I regaled y’all with my misadventures as a cook with the Chef installment. An aeon ago here at RIORI I spewed to you folks about my struggles with bipolar disorder with the Silver Linings Playbook installment.

Now we meet our quandary. Strap in.

Due to the fact (or maybe in spite of it) that Burnt tackled issues close to home it was still a natural fit under The Standard’s demands. Also, it’s been some time since we reviewed what The Standard is all about. So let’s, shall we?

What? Again? What for? Well, one you didn’t read the homepage, which means you are either lazy or disinterested as to how this blog gets slapped together. Maybe both. I would be too.

Second, recalling my rant on The Physician installment, folks are fuzzy on the logic of why these movies. I get a fair share of recommendations here, and only a few make the cut. The Standard may be a little flexible here and there, but a its core, RIORI is a PSA/angry screed about how Hollywood’s been fleecing us since the turn of the century. Its pretty ironclad overall. So can the movie biz’ practices, shamelessly and obviously, and spitting on our collective movie-going audience minds in the process. The fluff that’s aimed at in my very opinionated crosshairs is the acid test for what Tinsel Town gets away with and/or hides from us. Ipso facto, what movie fans care most about—thought provoking entertainment. It’s that cheated feeling I’m taking a stand against, like an angry shepherd cursing his unruly flock.

If you ain’t hip to that, go elsewhere. Flock off already.

*groans from the balcony*

Shut it. That was the best pun you ever heard. At least here.

So to put it plainly, The Standard was established based on a simple tenet: dissect perceived mediocrity in modern movies. Yer welcome.

*cheers from the nosebleed seats. “Freebird!”*

Where was I? Oh yeah, the movie gunk. But first I gotta get my bitch on.

Never fear. I’m not gonna go on and on with some long, winding bio in the food biz like I did with the Chef installment. Again, yer welcome. Still, I’d be remiss to not say a few things about the world of cheffing and its preconceived notions by the hoi polloi, which to some degree Burnt addresses, if not encourages. So I’ll take you on some long, winding tirade about how the food biz works and how the public believes it works, amplified by the camera lens. Don’t fret none. It’ll only sting a little. Later we may have to break out the branding iron, if needs be.

This may come as a bit of a shock, but I have a certain disdain for the concept of a “celebrity chef.” Back in the day, any great chef worth his salt—and it was almost certainly always a he—earned his rep through word of mouth and an impeccable menu, as well as a certain “reputation.” You know what I mean. The arrogant stereotype that launched a thousand signature Rachael Ray spice racks down ol’ Target way. Folks like Careme, Escoffier and Pliny The Elder got their esteem via reputation alone, either through praise or infamy. Often both. No cameras then. No endorsements. No makeup artists. Just skills and craftsmanship and a legacy to hold them up. Them’s were frontier days.

In the not so recent past (at least before basic cable), going into the restaurant biz was an option slightly better than a conscript in the army, prison inmate or high school gym teacher. No glory then, not like today where white bread America is enraptured with mad food skillz and prettiness and effete snobbery of self-described “foodies.” Folks, let me tell you: drizzling black truffle oil on everything does not a gourmet dish make, no matter how crisp those French fries are. Or a Red Baron pizza, for that matter. Snooty foodie guests get all moist over the lobster risotto, unaware that the dish is merely a thrown bone to keep ’em quiet. Sometimes it even works, provided they didn’t catch the latest installment of The Chew and what Michael Symon kept giggling about.

No. Not too long back, cooks were regarded as chattel, lowly laborers in hot dungeons, fueled by beer, crank and the burning need to make rent at the YMCA. Oh yeah, a desire to make good food in there somewhere. It wasn’t all shiny shiny, endless pantry, the barbarians of Gourmet shaking down the gates to understand how the chef succeeded in foraging for morels in October. Again, no. Back then, no one really cared, so long as the food kept coming and didn’t taste like week-old snot. Thank God for ketchup. The general public didn’t want to know how the sausage was made, literally and figuratively.

A lot has changed since those Stone Age-y days (not that much. The beer thing is sovereign). Today, pro chefs are revered for their craft and creativity. Restaurant cooks now have a sort of rock star cachet (a phrase I loathe). Most are either formally educated at Johnson & Wales, the CIA, under the tutelage of a knowledgeable chef or simply spending years in the bellies of multiple beasts, plugging away from dishwasher to sous. Sometimes beyond; look at Thomas Keller. We are skilled craftsmen and women, hell bent on improving your lives with food, fun and a psychotic enough drive to make a rabbit torchon or proscuttio foam (shout out to Robinson there, the maniac) for your dining pleasure. And ultimately ours.

Some things have not changed. Professional cooking is still a lonely trade, in so those who do it understand all too well that the people outside the circle just. Won’t. Get. It. We labor in very close proximity to others in unpleasant climes that would result in a harassment suit in a proper corporate environment. Potential physical danger at your fingertips, often on purpose. Lots of sweat, lots of pressure, lots of angst and lots of the f-bomb used for every part of speech. Rewards for this toil? Internal. The occaisional complement only makes us skittish and ever more determined to the next time to perhaps, blue moon-like get another (hopefully in the form of a clean plate). Meantime in the not so far back of our heads we constantly ask ourselves, “What can be done better?”

Sigh.

Like many of the problems of our culture, blame TV on this sea change in the public’s view of chefs. It could’ve came from any cook’s cult of personality (mine was Jeff Smith, AKA “The Frugal Gourmet”), but I’m gonna say that the praise or said blame could be laid at the feet of Emeril Lagasse for bringing the wonders of cooking into your average suburban kitchen. You know, a house with little more than a sticky microwave and way too many cans of Campbell’s at the ready. Oh, and Kraft mac and cheese. Can’t forget the Kraft now. All ya gotta do is cheeze me. Call Sandra Lee.

Before Emiril’s cries of “bam!” penetrated the hive mind of Middle America in the 90s, chefs toiled in steerage and earned obscurity. Most wanted it that way; it’s easier to practice a rather psycho craft without prying eyes and scorn gettin’ all up in your grille. The job is tough and has little of the glamour the media dumps on the likes of Bobby Flay and others of his ilk. You know, the former pro chefs who are now well-groomed, have writers and nary a day-old beard growth to be found (this includes Anne Burrell). Sure, the chef does get rightful attention at their eateries, for the good and the gross, but what’s behind the curtain would never sell in Columbus. I’m telling you, if you ever got a look over the pass at some two-star joint at how we labored, spoke and behaved—all in the name of speed and flavor, mind you—you’d turn around in search of a chemical shower usually reserved for biohazard contamination. Please try the veal.

Kidding. It’s not that bad. It’s only on weekends we have to bust out the manacles on the ankles. Moving on.

Emeril brought a personality to a chef. Mainstream media-flavored. A cult of personality to be sure, thanks to the camera or in spite of it. But think about it, he was funny, animated, knowledgeable and coined a bloody catchphrase, before God. Even ol’ Jeff Smith was lacking there. So bam! as star was born. A celebrity chef, and it’s been the trickle-down theory ever since. For good and for ill. Very ill. Hospice level, actually.

The other end of the spectrum—the inevitable, tired shark-jump—are the myriad Gordon Ramsey travesties that are pure, car crash entertainment. Say what you will, but at least Emeril’s programming (barring that embarassing sitcom) was about cooking. All Ramsey does it let loose with his frustrated ex-footballer lost glory and hams it up. Ramsey’s antics on his plethora of non-cooking shows only demands the question, “Why would anyone want to get into this business?” It’s all a real shame. The guy’s talented, taught by the esteemed British chef Marco White, the only guy who ever retired his Michelin stars. You watch Kitchen Nightmares (the US version) and you’d never get the impression that this petulant, raging assh*le commanded such loyalty back in his actual cheffing days that when he quit a kitchen he crew followed suit, raging asshat boss be damned.

That kind of story isn’t sexy enough for TV. Screaming blue language is.

Don’t misunderstand me. Such behavior is par for the course in a professional restaurant kitchen. The exploits recounted in chef-cum-travel host Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential are painfully spot on, cocaine and all (I’m not saying I harbor a blow habit. I’m a drunk. I only avoid police at key moments). But for all the hullabaloo from ignorant, moneyed ‘Murica tossing bouquets and feigning culinary knowledge akin to that sketchy guy at the used record store, clutching his first pressing of Neu!’s self-titled debut like the Dead Sea Scrolls with a sneer, the job’s decidedly not some fashion show runway with knives. Pro cooking is a basal, ugly business. It’s only redeemed by the throughput from of many sweaty hours. Years. It is never about hand-picked anything and impeccable crystal. It’s what you don’t see beyond those pickled ramps you’ve been lusting over, which only a day ago you understood as things the drunken wheelchair-bound used to get up to the library.

The celeb chef ideal is a myth. It’s a fabrication based on a broadcasted image. It’s seldom if ever about what’s on the plate. It’s TV. Get that through your hipster heads. And shave off that f*ckin’ beard already.

That being said, it comes as no shock that my friends in the field had to check out Burnt, if only to gleefully point out technical errors and/or see if Cooper “got it right.” I sometimes start the rants without seeing the movie proper, like here. Why? Distillation of bile when a film might tackle a subject that may be near and dear. Gets the juices a-flowing’ ya dig? Don’t sweat none about the actual review. It’s lurking around here somewhere.

Speaking of the actual film this week, I think it proper to point out that our lead Cooper had a little experience behind this role back in his salt mine years. In the early aughts, Cooper starred in a short-lived TV show loosely based on/inspired by the escapades in the aforementioned Bourdain exposé Kitchen Confidential. For less than a year, Cooper portrayed chef Jack Bourdain (clever) trying to hold a white tablecloth joint together with his rabble of criminals and miscreants as crew. The venerable character actor Frank “Skeletor” Langella played the beleaguered owner of the place, which lent a degree of gravitas to this left-wing farce, but mostly it was unknown and therefore malleable actors that filled in the blanks. Such a clean slate must’ve allowed Cooper some room to work out the kinks his comedic acting style. The show limped along for a single season, then vanished without a trace. Three years later Anthony’s tales on the Travel Channel’s No Reservations took flight and eventually scored Emmys. I find all that funny. Just thought I’d say something. Whatever. Back to the PopSecret with you.

Due to the waffling reviews, lame takeaway and ribbing from my peers I took Burnt under my wing. Truth be told it was mostly out of curiosity. Not necessarily professional curiosity. I admit that was there. More so I was curious to see if what Cooper might have learned back in 2005 got translated here (in an identical role BTW, complete with checkered past and a struggle against addiction) with any élan, more confident thanks to an Oscar nom under his belt. And sans any potential insulting performance my fellow countrymen would cackle at. Here’s hoping.

Service!…


Time takes time, as it’s been said.

Disgraced chef Adam Jones (Cooper) has been marking off his time in oysters. Shuck by shuck.

He’s been in a self-imposed exile away from running a kitchen, trying to get his sh*t together after drink and drugs ruined his career years ago. He’s found the time is right to make amends. Not so much to others he’s wronged in the past, but for the debacle of his Parisian restaurant—thereby insulting his mentor—through hubris and excessive…everything.

Jones is in London, looking for his comeback (and the ever elusive third Michelin star). He shakes down Tony (Brühl), the stuffy maitre’d of the exclusive Langham Hotel to give him the gig to turn around its restaurant. Tony is all too knowledgeable of Adam’s recklessness, and balks at first. Still, Adam is the man with the skills, and a third-tier eatery would do wonders for the Langham’s cachet.

Everybody deserves a second chance. So Adam goes about wrangling in talented cooks to make his dream of revenge come true. Helene (Miller) is a brittle, single mom whose got a lot more to gain and lose by teaming up with Adam. Michel (Sy) was Adam’s former sous when the merde went down in Paris, and might still be harboring something. Grillardin extraordinare Max (Scamarico) is on board for his wonders over the fire, as soon as he gets out of jail. And FNG David (Keeley) is a commis far from hopeless, as soon as he realizes it.

Even with his dream crew, it’s not really about Adam creating his dream restaurant here. It’s not really even about righting wrongs with old friends as well as professional integrity. It’s not even about that elusive third star.

Adam conquering the Langham is about apples. And oysters. And time served…


While Chef was an R-rated family film disguised as a character study, Burnt is nothing but a character study. Chef was friendly while Burnt is prickly. Chef  was uplifting while Burnt is downbeat. Chef had a hopefulness about it, with a likable star at its helm. With Burnt, we have murkiness and a decidedly unlikeable lead.

Dare I say it? Yep, I do. We’re talking apples to oranges here. Stop screaming.

The image if the “celebrity chef” hangs over Burnt like a pall. Not totally bad, though; there’s enough decent acting to keep the air light and puffy. The sh*t you witness on the Food Network is akin to watching an ep of Maury, that kind of emoting. That’s mostly absent with Burnt. Mostly. This is a Hollywood concoction, so certain concessions must be made. But still there are quite a few shades of that demon cult of personality I warned about creeping at the edges of Burnt. Only by way of canny direction and calculated acting does the film arrive as more than the sum of its knobby-kneed parts.

Like I said, character study. Boy, do we have a holy host here. That ubiquitous notion of celebrity chef nips at every corner of Burnt. It’s almost cliched, if not to the toilers on the sea but to every enraptured soul that takes Rachael Ray way too seriously (admit it, you’d tap that). It gets blurry, what the story is behind these characters. It is a tale of redemption, yes, and with the supporting cast, we have many facets of Adam’s wounded past made flesh. They’re like mirrors reflecting all the f*ckery Adam committed in his callow, druggy days and now he has to face them. Face himself.

Here’s where the drama comes in. Cooper may be the star, but it’s the folks in the wings that make Burnt work. Otherwise, this would indeed be Silver Linings Cookbook, yearning and fragile. Pert, almost shrewish Helene keeps Jones in check; keeps his time on task. It’s understood that Jones is very insecure and emotionally raw. His only validation for living is his work. His work is under par (to others). His fragile ego is shattered. Then he lashes out at others because they’re easier marks than himself. Not so with Helene. She’s not in this biz for ego—not like Adam—but for a clinical love or food and family, something he lacks. Her directness and no posturing, no bullsh*t attitude tempers, if not challenges Adam’s bluster. It’s agreed in this work that arrogance is important, but should be allayed by the bottom line. In sum, Cooper and Miller have an uneasy chemistry. Tit for tat. It’s almost not there. Almost, mind you. This push and pull makes for some good tension. It’s the best part of a comedy-drama: when both fronts won’t yield. And both come out smiling.

Cooper’s Adam is an arrogant doosh, to be sure. I guess balancing off him is why I enjoyed the supporting cast better than our star. Miller and the rest are a lot like a Classical Greek chorus, either emoting or telling the audience what’s happening. You gotta be sharp for it, though. Sy’s Michel was a fine example. All along the line, you get whiffs that he’s got a bone to pick with Adam, but you never truly see his motives coming. He’s calculating, but rather removed at the same time. It’s not until The Big Reveal that we get his message and purpose. Ooooo (that wasn’t a spoiler. It really wasn’t. Really. Back off).

Keeley’s David and Scarmarcio’s Max were yin and yang. David’s the newb, wobbly but eager. Max is tough, embittered to what the biz dishes out. There were some nice moments between the two, but not direct interaction. Whenever Adam fails to get his jones (ha!) on, and takes down his crew with hubris and ridicule, David and Max mirror the fallout. David gets abashed, and Max hangs his head in silent disgust, seeing this happening one too many times and now emotionally removed from the skewering David gets treated to. It’s a dynamic I’ve seen in kitchens before; big bro, li’l bro. BTW, the ranting, bully chef figure is so passé. Thank TV and Ramsey for that. That sh*t does not a productive kitchen make. There ya go.

My fave character in this mess is Brühl’s Tony. Mister uptight, what-the-f*ck-have-I-gotten-into, beleaguered maitre’d. He’s the hub upon which the spokes spin. Reality check. Apart from Helene, Tony’s the man with the plan: keeping Adam on target. All this sh*t with the Langham and getting a third star and mending Adam’s troublesome conscious means nothing. It’s the bottom line. Cooking is a business, not just some palate to cleanse. There are stakes here beyond perfect saffron and not scorching the bechamel. Tony passively reminds Adam that there is a world out there, beyond the kitchen. Maybe he should check it out, really check it out sometime. That and his accent is great, and mish-mash of Eurotrash and an ingenue. He’s very natural.

Now that’s out of the way, we’ll get to what Bourdain calls “the nasty bits.”

Technical sh*t, and I ain’t talking editing (which was indeed fine, if only for the first act). Got a handful of gripes here, and it’s not from my experiences with sweat and tired feet. No. Again it’s with the demon specter of the Food Network peppering the story with “sweetening.” Overall, there are nuggets of truth within the kitchen at The Langham, but delivered with the usual Hollywood sell. It’s a convincing sell, mind you, but I could really have done without the whole “bad boy” image Jones had. The leather jacket? The shades? The bloody motorcycle? Total TV. Also, one needn’t explain away a chef’s turbulent background/upbringing. I mean, my mentor was raised by a mother who was gay; take that under your belt. He was bipolar as well. Did you need to know that? No. Did it have any real bearing on his career? Probably not (the dope maybe). Did we need to be reminded frame after frame of Adam’s misdeeds? Of course not. We got it. He’s haunted. One mention is enough. Anything more delves into after school special territory/cautionary tale. Let the audience add their own spice, already.

In addition to that, there are lots of pretensions here to “illustrate” the sturm and drang of cooking. Excessive plate throwing is the stuff of Hollywood. Sure, it happens. Like once in a Sasquatch sighting happens. It did happen to me once, but by accident. Here, have a seat. I nearly got an ear torn off by an errant hotel pan. Again, it was an accident. I was literarily walking through the door to clock in for service when this angular, metal non-boomerang caromed off the mop sink basin and crashed at my feet. Only after I ducked with drunken cat-like speed. My chef was horrified at what he had done, scared. He could have sent my teeth flying. I learned that he was pissed at a certain piece of troublesome equipment and took out his ire by hurling the irksome pan across the kitchen. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Still scary, though.

The antics the flustered Jones engaged in was hyped up, but probably for the sake of keeping the audience awake. And say what you won’t, Jones manifested the worst and best parts of my mentor perfectly, warts and…warts. His skulking around the kitchen, making sure everything’s on point and on the level. The endless, stern questioning of his crew ensuring the former. The stress. That much was genuine. But that sh*t only sells so much to the average, attention starved, lasagane-loving audience. We gotta throw hotel pans to keep folks engaged. Shameful, at least for trying to convey a fine dining kitchen as “authentic” against the reality.

Here is where I shall share with you the true make-up of film. What Hollywood is all about in execution, not necessarily practice. Burnt is an ideal acid test. You wanna know what filmmaking is all about? Do ya? Huh, do ya?

Wake up.

Hollywood is reality plus 20%. Dig it.

The best movies feel real. They aren’t real, they’re stories. But the stories are supposed to trick us into believing that this, this is reality. This is how it is. Doubt me? Then explain all the Star Wars acolytes out there. And no, sorry to burst any bubbles, you can’t buy the Millenium Falcon on eBay. At least not “life-size” and in Lego form. Sorry.

Many writers claim that to make a story work, the characters must be likable. Bzzzt. Wrong. Is Jones cuddly? Characters have to be interesting. Is Jones interesting? Yes. Likable? Nuh-uh. By following that line, a film offers up a “normal” chef role and there’ll be yawns aplenty. You gotta exceed real reality. You gotta throw hotel pans. Daily. Hourly. With a lot of cussing. It’s made Ramsey’s post-football/post-chef career. It’s interesting. You need that 20% overage to sell the ticket.

So Burnt sold it. Director Wells knew what he had to do. Then everything went pear-shaped in the third act. He exceeded 20%. He brought in too many soap opera touches. Hollywood crept in. The final act bore little to the tale laid out in the first two. Everything collapsed. What began as a curious tale of redemption descended into utter bathos. The epic fail that almost destroys our hero. The (forced) romantic interest. Deus ex machina saving the day. The sunny conclusion that was almost imperceptible a few frames back. All Cooper had to do was shave and we’d be in Oz. Christ, that sh*t pisses me off. Hollywood needs to be reminded more often that hey! It doesn’t have to work out every time! Or at least not make it so f*cking obvious and slick like so many downed egg creams.

I think Wells hornswoggled us. A bitter comedy-drama about an embittered chef worked well on paper. And for the most part, that script worked. Then we took a wrong turn entered Forrest Gump territory, and the center failed to hold. What a bummer.

My mom loves Bradley Cooper, even more than me. I lent her and my dad the disc for their viewing pleasure. According to the party line, moms got up halfway through the screening and went to bed. She said Burnt wasn’t holding her attention. What? With Cooper starring? With his eternal day-old growth? The hell?

Reality plus 20%. The third act killed it all. For me too. Mostly. Too bad.

In the final analysis, Burnt was good overall. It’s a shame that I found Chef more enjoyable, and probably for the wrong reasons. I expected Burnt to be a more mature version of Chef, especially since we had seasoned Jack Bourdain along for the ride. It was, until Tinsel Town needed to relieve itself, scamming Middle America in the process.

I’m kind of an idealist. Really. Quick snickering. In so I hope that with certain “docudrama” type movies the curtain will be pulled back and an unknowing public might have the scales fall from their fishy eyes. Films like Grizzly Man, Longtime Companion and The Decline Of Western Civilization considered. See how the sausage is made for certain. Burnt had that capacity, but copped out. I guess, for better or worse, to make a marketable film you gotta go for the soft sell. Too bad here.

All right, good night. Don’t forget to tip your server, and please stop dipping that f*cking sushi in that goddam mixture of soy sauce and fake wasabi swill you stirred together to get your virgin sushi eater date to think you know sumpin.

AND QUIT RUBBING THE CHOPSTICKS TOGETHER! THAT’S RUDE!

Check please.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A tepid rent it. It didn’t suck. That much is good. The acting was a delight. Two-thirds of it was quite entertaining, even if you’re not a chef (or a Food Network disciple). But you ever watch a good movie only to have it all undone by a lousy ending? I’ll say it: it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

C’mon, gimme at least that one.


Stray Observations…

  • You figure out what belies Tony’s true dislike of Adam? Right. Unrequited love. It’s kinda heartbreaking, really.
  • “You have a spare bedroom?”
  • What was up with that silly Terminator pose?
  • “I’m not much for groups.” Portent.
  • I dug the soundtrack.
  • “I haven’t been myself since the 90s.” Been there, done that. Look at this tribal tat on my leg.
  • “Where is he?” “Outside. Throwing up.”
  • hate heat lamps. They are a necessary evil.
  • “Not to me; to the f*cking fish.”
  • Um, sous vide baths were around in 2010. Jones must’ve been really high.
  • Turbot for the kid. It’s kinda heartbreaking, really.
  • “Should I be writing this stuff down? ‘Cause I don’t have a crayon.”
  • Band-Aid?!?
  • You’re not as pretty as you once were.”
  • That scene with Helene being late? Plausible, minus the raise.
  • “Thirty seconds, no more.” For the dish or the deal?
  • The kiss. It’s kinda heart—ow!
  • “Perfection doesn’t exist, but we still keep looking for it.” That one’s mine.
  • Once more, count up all the cooking-related metaphors I used in this installment and you win a pony! Okay, if not that then I’ll quit punching you in the face.

Next Installment…

We absorb the ups and downs of establishing The Social Network, namely FaceBook. Read about it on FaceBook! Be sure to like it! Or else!


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