Burnt is a very bad film. You were probably aware of this (if you saw it, you definitely were). But even if you didn’t catch it in cinemas, you might still feel a residual something tugging at your synapses: Bradley Cooper, a terrible, earnest trailer full of biker-leather testosterone swagger and laughable dialogue (“I don’t want my restaurant to be somewhere you come and eat… I want people to sit at that table and be sick with longing”); a second terrible, slightly more playful trailer also full of laughable dialogue (“We should be dealing in culinary orgasms”). You might remember critical maulings more savage than even this atom-by-atom evisceration; Rotten Tomatoes so unpalatable you couldn’t turn them into ketchup.
It is with a light heart and cheerful grin that I tell you it is far, far worse than all that. The first half in particular, leaden with exposition, may be the worst 50-odd minutes I’ve ever seen in a film that at one point was generating genuine Oscar buzz. Some fine, fine actors get pulled along under the bus: Uma Thurman has a Vine-length cameo as a feared restaurant critic; Matthew Rhys takes a break from ethering CIA operatives to throw prissy shade at his former-colleague turned rival; Emma Thompson reprises her role from Love Actually as the only sane person in a word full of people spouting you-can-type-this-shit-but-you-can’t-say-it gibberish. Cooper himself phones in a cuisine minceur reimagining of his Silver Linings Playbook performance: he’s crazy! He’s dark! He’s brooding! He’s manic! He was once addicted – to drugs! He’s still addicted – to perfection! If chefs are the new rock and roll, this guy's the cool one from The Rolling Stones, alright!
Burnt plays like a Weinstein Company exec read Kitchen Confidential on the day of its publication in the year 2000, ordered a paint-by-the-numbers fictionalised treatment, fell into a coma, and woke up in 2015 demanding that they start filming his script immediately. The restaurant world has changed immeasurably since Tony Bourdain was getting blowies and doing rails off the garde manger station: in terms of fine dining (it is weird but typically lackadaisical for a movie about the quest to be the best in the world not to pay even lip service to names like Redzepi or Chang, or even acknowledge the existence of The List); in terms of food more generally (where the once caste-like high / low binary has almost totally collapsed; where our palates have been invigorated by an influx of food from places outside France); in terms of society and pop culture more generally still (we need another ‘Difficult Man Does X’ movie about as much as Ray Donavan needed a second episode). Burnt might well have worked in early 2001; in 2016 it feels as maladroit and anachronistic as a sprig of curly-leaf parsley atop a fillet steak.
It also feels like its knowledge of the world of Fine Dining has been cribbed from a series of one-star reviews on Tripadvisor. It’s genuinely, utterly clueless, veering between too tame (where's the after-service carousing?), too extreme (an angry chef is briefly imprisoned but then allowed straight back to work after BITING SOMEONE’S NOSE OFF), and too inaccurate. I don’t like to #actually movies in general, but for a film obsessed enough with authenticity to bring in Marcus Wareing as a consultant to feel as wrong as Burnt does is baffling. Some of it can be attributed to its consultant’s own pettiness (a montage flicking through the London Michelin Guide showing the different stars lingers on Marcus at the two-star level but can’t bring itself to acknowledge Restaurant Gordon Ramsay with three, and flips instead to Astrance, which is in Paris). Some of it may be the exigencies of good old fashioned Hollywood So Whiteness: every dining room in this film is stuffed to the gills with middle-aged white people, not the gamut from OpenTable special offer chancers to children of Chinese billionaires we see these days; one sole black sous aside, every kitchen brigade is as stolidly Anglo-Saxon as meat and two veg. But some of it is just plain factual inaccuracy: allowing Cooper’s character to pick up where he left off as a two-star chef despite the fact he’s been out of the kitchen for years; positioning the visit from The Michelin Men as a do-or-die one-off when they visit somewhere on the cusp of three stars no fewer than ten times; asserting that Michelin inspectors always come in pairs, and that one orders the tasting menu, one a la carte, when this sort of chopping and changing is almost always expressly forbidden almost everywhere because of chaos it will cause in the kitchen. If someone cooked you chicken this inattentively, you could die.
Being charitable, maybe it’s deliberate – and I would actually, weirdly, sort of understand why they thought they had to make such gross simplifications, and where it all went wrong from that point. The thinking is this: the paradox of putting out a niche interest movie in Hollywood in these ROI-conscious days is that to appeal to enough people, to bolster that all-important bottom line, you have to broaden it, make it easily digestible to as many potentially-curious punters as possible. In doing so, though, you alienate your core audience.
But really that’s an argument built on sand: look at Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a much quieter, more meditative retelling of what is actually a very similar story of obsession and perfectionism. On paper, it’s a hard sell, even to someone who cares about food: some old dude speaking haltingly in a foreign language about cold bits of fish. But in resisting the urge to sensationalise, to shout for your attention about the sheer sexiness of its subject matter, to make cooking the new rock and roll or class A drugs or Pokemon fucking Go, director David Gelb ended up making a film that you could discover in your own time – and which many people did (still 99% fresh, too!).
My other counterpoint would be that cooking isn’t actually a niche interest any more. It might have been back in 2000, but in 2016 so many “ordinary” people are incredibly literate, and incredibly educated, when it comes to food. So many different sources – from Instagram to Chef's Table on Netflix – have made the supposedly impenetrable world of Fine Dining portrayed in Burnt immensely accessible to the sort of punter who might once have viewed sommeliers and maîtres-d as white-gloved agents of humiliation. When Burnt explains the Michelin star system to you using a clunky Star Wars analogy, it’s not being helpful, Margot Robbie in a bathtub: it’s teaching your grandmother to suck the eggs you might otherwise have whipped into a perfectly serviceable omelette.
I'm angry with Burnt not (just) because it’s terrible, but because it wasted the goodwill that had slowly built up about a story set in the bizarre, secret universe of Pacojets and water baths. We as a public are genuinely interested in chefs, and cooking; this felt like a genuine cultural moment. But all that Burnt and the similarly-panned Feed the Beast have done is make it so much harder for us to get our equivalent of something like Mad Men - a modest commercial and significant critical hit that takes a loyal cadre of enthusiasts into the uncanny valley between our world and a fictionalised version of one of its weirder recesses. Finding something worthwhile to write about shouldn’t be made to look this hard; restaurant kitchens are fertile ground for interesting stories; there are so many good movies that could have been made. I would watch the shit out of an Amadeus-style movie setting a duelling master and apprentice against each other; I would happily binge on a workplace black comedy about that magic, fleeting time when Marco Pierre White and Mario Batali shared a tiny kitchen and, briefly, cooked the best pub food in the world. Taking inspiration from Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert’s wonderful 36 Yolks, I would relish a Creed-style come-up story about a young man having his eyes opened in the presence of a genius at the peak of his powers. Someone get Harvey on the line!
Creed, in fact, might be the best example of how you can tell engaging, interesting stories about a world not everyone knows: I’m sure there are some factual inaccuracies, not to mention head-scratching implausibilities. But as the grandchild of a boxer who used to regale us with stories about his time in the ring, I know that that film showed, however impressionistically, the daily agony of self-improvement, the speed, the adrenaline, the brutality of it all - basically, the stuff that makes boxing boxing.
In trying to make a movie about how cookery is like boxing, or like rock and roll, or like doing drugs, Burnt overlooks the fact that cookery is plenty interesting in itself; in creating a sandbox in which Cooper can stomp around as just another Difficult Man, it invokes a world that no longer exists, and arguably never did. You don't finish it feeling exhilarated, or even sated – like the worst tasting menus, long before the end you just feel bored.