For most people, the weight of perfection might seem a difficult cross to bear.
But Adam Jones is not most people.
This preternaturally talented American chef rose to foodie fame in France, then lost it all when his meteoric ascent imploded in a haze of drugs and sex. Now he's starting over again in London at the restaurant of his good friend Tony.
Adam certainly has his charming moments. But they never come in the kitchen. There, he's revered—and feared—like a mercurial god. His demands are accordingly godlike. And his response to failure? Well, have you seen Gordon Ramsay's TV shows?
The night of the restaurant's grand reopening, he tells his staff (each member handpicked, especially pretty, talented sous chef Helene), "If it is not perfect, you throw it away. No matter what."
But when the evening isn't perfect—a goal Adam's pursuing to earn a coveted Michelin three-star rating—well, it's more than just haute cuisine that gets hurled across the kitchen. Plates hit walls. Profanity hits everyone.
"Everybody get the f--- out of here," Adam rages at his chefs.
So almost as soon as Adam Jones' journey of professional redemption has begun, it seems on the verge of falling as flat as a failed soufflé, done in again by his obsessive insistence upon a standard no one can live up to.
But slowly, ever so slowly, in the wake of that opening night disaster, Adam's remarkably patient friends and kitchen denizens help him learn that absolute perfection is indeed a crushing cross no one can bear for very long.
In most contexts, being a hard worker committed to excellence is a good thing. A great thing, in fact. For Adam, however, perfectionism isn't really about working hard and doing his best, it's about never being satisfied. Ever. And his lack of satisfaction always results in self-destructive choices, be they abusing chefs, drugs, alcohol or lovers.
Adam's past, we learn, is littered with the wreckage of his addiction to the latter three. And now, even though he's been substance- and promiscuity-free for more than two years, he's still hobbled by his addictive, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, a deeply ingrained way of living that makes the initially charming man hard to be around for very long.
That's not positive. Here's what is: Tony, Helene and others in the kitchen (his old friends Michel and Max, as well as new recruit David) patiently put up with Adam's raging volatility. They do it in part because he's among the best chefs in the world. But they also do it because they care about him and want to help him escape the bondage his impossibly high expectations create for himself and everyone around him.
Helene tells him, "We cook together. We take care of each other. You can't do it alone. No one can. You have to trust us. We're your family." Tony requires Adam to see a psychiatrist weekly for drug testing and to talk things out. Dr. Rosshilde delivers a message similar to Helene's, saying, "You can't do it alone. There is strength in needing others, not weakness."
Adam never really relaxes his stratospheric standards. But he eventually relinquishes his zealous attempt to control every outcome and demand perfection every single time from himself and everyone around him, enabling him to actually enjoy his culinary calling in the company of other people instead of alienating them. (A key moment of growth for him involves baking a birthday cake for Helene's young daughter, Lilly, then eating it with her.)
In that, the movie doesn't give up on striving for excellence even as it allows for the striver to be human. Another old friend and fellow chef, Reece, tells Adam, "You're better than me. Which makes you the best. The rest of us need you to lead us to places we wouldn't otherwise go."
Adam says his mentor, a renowned French chef named Jean Luc, once said, "It was God who created oysters and apples. You can't improve on a recipe like that. But it is our job to try."
Try as he might, though, Adam has failed. And early on, we see him shucking oysters in New Orleans. A dog-eared journal boasts pages and pages of numbers, the last one being 1,000,000. Adam says shucking a million oysters was his penance for his failures as a young man in France. Though he's not a religious man in any real sense of the word, Adam obviously carries with him a sense of guilt and debt that he believes he must repay. And perfection, in his mind, is the only path he can see to redemption. What he finally learns, however, is that redemption (in an earthly, not necessarily Christian sense) isn't something that can be earned. Rather, it can only be received as a gift from others. In that sense, Burnt is very much a movie about failure and grace, even if those spiritual concepts are embedded in a mostly secular narrative. And Adam, in a culminating scene, finally tosses the journal into the Thames.
When asked how he's stayed sober, Adam jokingly responds, "The power of prayer." When asked what happens when he gets the three-star rating, Adam replies, "Sainthood. Immortality." When asked what happens if he fails to get the three-star rating, he replies, "The four horsemen ride. Darkness descends." Indeed, the Michelin restaurant rating book is referred to as "The Bible." We hear talk of hell, the serpent in the Garden of Eden, as well as sarcasm about "stoning infidels."
Helene wears a low-cut and very revealing spaghetti-strap dress. Other women also wear cleavage-baring outfits. Adam and Helene kiss passionately once. David and his girlfriend are shown in bed together (where she's wearing a camisole). Adam learns that Tony is gay and is in love with him. We watch Tony watch a shirtless Adam in a hotel room (as he towels off post-shower). Adam acknowledges Tony's attraction, but doesn't reciprocate. He does, however, jokingly kiss Tony on the mouth as a "sympathy present."
Adam's self-destructive phase reportedly included lots of casual sex. He repeatedly compares food to sex, telling Helene, "We should be dealing in culinary orgasms." That line leads to Adam asking his female co-worker about the last time she "had an orgasm that was interesting." Adam also talks about paying prostitutes to fake orgasms. We hear references to condoms
Drug dealers beat Adam badly (offscreen), leaving him with a bloodied face and a huge bruise on his back. Adam and Reece demolish their respective kitchens in fits of anger. While under the influence and grappling with deep disappointment, Adam pulls a plastic bag over his head in a semiserious attempt to suffocate himself. (Reece wrestles him to the floor and forcibly rips the bag off Adam's face.)
A prickly encounter between Adam and Helene in the kitchen finds him grabbing her by the front of the apron and shoving her backward. She tells him never to touch her again. We hear that Max landed in prison for cutting someone's nose off in a kitchen fight. Adam and Michel have a brief head-locking scuffle that resolves with a laugh.
Crude or Profane Language
Fifty-plus f-words. A half-dozen or more s-words. A dozen or so misuses of Jesus' name and two or three of God's. Dialogue also includes "h---," "b--tard," "pr--k," "a--" and "a--hole."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters drink (mostly wine) and smoke (cigarettes) throughout the story. We hear that Adam had a severe drug and alcohol habit in France, one that left him in debt to dealers and forced him to flee Europe. Even now, Adam is pursued by drug dealers wanting him to pay an overdue debt. Reece says of that season, "I was hung over for two years." References are made to crack cocaine, painkillers and methadone. Adam says his addictions included "drinking, sniffing, snorting, injecting, licking yellow frogs and women."
Adam turns up at Reece's restaurant clearly under the influence of something. We learn that fast and hard living led to the breakup of Helene's marriage.
Other Negative Elements
One of Adam's friends betrays him to get revenge for Adam treating him badly years before. Adam tells a would-be staffer, "You lack arrogance. To be in my kitchen, you have to be able to defend yourself." He engineers Helene's firing from her job so she'll come to work for him. Then he tells her she's no more than "a piece of equipment" in his kitchen, and he refuses to give her the day off to celebrate her daughter's birthday. "The problem with being good," he rationalizes, "is that you become indispensable."
We see Adam vomiting the night his restaurant opens.
There's a whole list of R-rated films I've reviewed over the years that fall into a certain clunky category: They've got enough redemptive, thought-provoking drama that I find myself drawn into their stories, yet they've also got more than enough of the content that earned their rating that I can't recommend them to anyone.
Burnt is exactly that kind of movie. Bradley Cooper plays a narcissistic, abusive, manic perfectionist whose glaring character flaws prompt him to treat others almost as abusively as he treats himself. Failure is not an option. Supreme perfection is the only acceptable outcome. Suffice it to say he's difficult to be around until he finally comes to grips with his destructive urges.
The problem, as anyone who's spent much time in the real work world knows, is that such perfection is an elusive goal. And even if you manage to fleetingly achieve it, it's not a pinnacle where you're likely to pitch your tent permanently.
Real life is messy. We move up and down. We make mistakes. We treat others badly. We need redemption, a second shot, a new perspective on where our worth comes from.
Burnt seconds those assertions, insisting that what matters most is our relationships with those closest to us. That's a great message, but one that's ultimately, um, OK, burnt by the crass content baked into this R-rated recipe.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones; Sienna Miller as Helene; Daniel Brühl as Tony; Omar Sy as Michel; Matthew Rhys as Reece; Emma Thompson as Dr. Rosshilde; Uma Thurma as Simone; Alicia Vikander as Anne Marie; Lexi Benbow-Hart as Lily; Henry Goodman as Conti; Riccardo Scamarcio as Max; Sam Keeley as David
John Wells ( August: Osage County)
October 30, 2015
January 26, 2016