Sunday 8 November 2015

Burnt (2015) - Movie Review

Of the many, many things that I don’t possess nearly as much expertise in, or feign to have expertise in at least, as film, food would have to be one of the bigger ones. I have little to no interest in cooking shows that don’t includes the words “Iron Chef”, my taste buds have dulled from so much fast food that I wouldn’t be able to taste each of the secret herbs & spices even if I was actively told what they were, and I cannot for the life of me take the more cut-throat kitchen dramas out there seriously. Maybe if I spent long enough in the more hoity-toity restaurants of the world, then maybe seeing chefs completely lose their shit would make a bit more sense to me. Or maybe if I had watched a lot less of Gordon Ramsey’s signature freak-outs when I was growing up; that might've helped too. So, with all this in mind, I’m probably not the ideal audience for this kind of film. But it’s not as if this is the first, nor will it be the last time that this will happen, so it’ll be regular snarky business as usual.

The plot: Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) is, or rather was, a high-profile chef in Paris. That is, until his drug problems and abrasive attitude ended up costing him everything. After he’s felt that he paid his penance for his actions, he returns to Europe with the hopes of regaining his former glory and earning a third Michelin star. However, even with the right connections and the right support where he needs it, Adam’s explosive temper could end up dooming him once again.

Last year, we had not one but two examples of this at work, with Jon Favreau’s Chef and Lasse Hallström’s The Hundred-Foot Journey, and both suffered from Ramseyitis. Chef had Dustin Hoffman chewing through the cutlery and Hundred-Foot Journey contained some truly bizarre racial relations coupled with literal warfare tactics between restaurants. The fact that Burnt is written by Steven Knight, who also did Hundred-Foot Journey, doesn’t help my going into this film at all.

However, this film actually managed to stick; it’s almost as if Knight took a step back and gained some proper perspective in terms of behind-the-stove melodrama. One of the first scenes in the film between Adam and love interest Helene (Sienna Miller) has them talking in a Burger King. What follows is something I genuinely didn’t expect to see in a film like this, or really any film this year: Talks about classism. We get Adam essentially defending people who work at fast food outlets against people who think that they don’t make ‘proper food’. It’s the pop art vs. high art discussion all over again, except this has a bit of added spice to it. Take that last line in while you can, I’m limiting my food-related puns for this review.

Later on, we see Adam being convinced to use Sous-vide cooking techniques at the restaurant by Helene. Basically, the method involves extremely slow-cooking food in plastic bags submerged in water. In a weird fashion, this kind of validates Adam’s words earlier about how fast food and prestige food aren’t as dissimilar as first thought; as someone who has previously had to man the deep fryer in a fast food chain, I can confirm that both styles involve a lot of food being kept in plastic bags. From then on, all of the outbursts and inordinate pressure that Adam puts on himself to get that third star come into focus. It’s an add-on from that ancient saying: Mo' money, mo' problems. The higher up the food chain you get, the more that has to be dealt with and with higher stakes. Not only that, but because the more upscale food is commonly consumed less for its quality and more for the social status that is associated with it, it almost transcends being mere consumables at that level and becomes a form of art; there’s a reason why plating up is so important in a restaurant, after all. With this, Adam’s actions begin to reflect the ones usually done by people in more artistically creative fields like music or even filmmaking; egos run rampant because of how passionate the people are about their work. With all this in mind, Adam’s outbursts in the kitchen managed to actually reach me in terms of efficacy; I can safely say that it is going to be a lot easier to take these moments seriously in the future after this.

However, once we hit the final reel, all of that pressure that Adam places on himself is finally revealed for what it is: Unnecessary. Once it reaches a point where it seems like Adam’s past has come back to haunt him and snatch away his chances for that star, he stumbles his way into his rival’s kitchen and attempts to suffocate himself… only to be saved by the rival. Now, while his statements after the fact reek of uneven characterisation for Adam, his actions in the moment make sense: Yeah, he takes his business seriously much like Adam does, but he isn’t willing to shed blood for it. From then on, even though Adam’s arc closes on a clichéd note of “you work better with a team than on your own”, it also shows Adam doing his work because he wants to do it, without putting needless pressure on himself. I can relate, considering some thoughts that have crossed my mind when it comes to these very reviews. Honestly, for as much derision as I’ve seen this character get, I once again feel the need to bring up how having a main character that is more than a little abrasive isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Thankfully, thanks to some choice writing that is self-aware about the man’s flaws and the right framing so that his actions never reach the point of unforgivable, this is another example much like Ruben Guthrie where this idea has been done right.

The romantic sub-plot in this film might be the most realistic one that I’ve seen all year, and by that I mean that it barely gets off the ground. This is by no means a bad thing, as it means that the film completely bypasses one of the crowning faults in cinema with the third-act break-up. Yeah, it’s a spoiler but look at all the cares I have to give; around here, that is worth instant acclamation. We do see a connection form between them, with some burst of sudden passion between them, but nothing as shown in most films where they just randomly fall head-over-heels in love after only a few days. Hell, the film itself highlights how clichéd this sub-plot is through the maître d’ Tony (Daniel Brühl), who essentially details the entire framework for it in reference to Adam’s previous sexual exploits. Points again for pointing out cinematic flaws and not just following them afterwards. Hell, in a weird bit of characterisation, Adam almost forms a relationship with Tony as well, ending on a similarly passionate note. However, the less pronounced progression of the relationship between Adam and Helene could be a bug rather than a feature, as the film’s montages can feel like they’re full of potential character moments that were cut down for time.

All in all, let’s look at the specifics. It has the serious potential to affect how I watch future films, given how it managed to make me better understand what drives these crazily driven chefs to act as they do, it dodges the dirge on all things cinema that is the third-act break-up, and it is self-aware enough to take a potentially loathsome main character and make him unabashedly human. It’s kind of difficult for me not to praise a movie with this kind of writing, despite some of its flaws concerning characterisation.

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