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Review: Celebrity-chef comeback film ‘Burnt’ leaves a sour aftertaste

Bradley Cooper inthe film "Burnt."
(Alex Bailey / The Weinstein Company)

“Burnt” is overcooked. If that sounds like a glib way to describe an entertainment about the comeback of a celebrity chef, it’s also perfectly suited to a movie that wears its glossiness as a badge of honor.

Of course, being glib and glossy can be diverting in the right hands, and “Burnt” has been concocted by experts, including screenwriter Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things,” “The Hundred Foot Journey,” “Locke”) and director John Wells, who has been a force in television since the days of “E.R.” and “The West Wing.”

And given that protagonist Adam Jones (played in classic star-vehicle style by Bradley Cooper) is an arrogant bad boy chef so full of himself he makes Donald Trump seem humble and contrite, one could argue that “Burnt” comes by its cockiness honestly.

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But in spite of a strenuous attempt to portray Jones as the most magnetic human being on the planet, so sexually attractive that lesbians sleep with him and gay men wish they could, his kind of conceit does not charm us for as long as it’s supposed to.

We don’t see Jones in his bad old days, when he was the talk of Paris, earning two Michelin stars before throwing it all away in a haze of drug use and all-around reprehensible behavior, but we hear all about them in the chef’s voiceover.

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When “Burnt” picks up the story, Jones is about to leave New Orleans, where he has spent years shucking exactly 1 million oysters (he keeps a running tally!) as some kind of crackpot penance for all the harm he’s done.

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Thus cleansed, Jones heads for London, determined to open a restaurant and win his coveted third Michelin star. This even though in the time he’s been gone, high-end gourmet cooking has changed, forsaking saucepans and embracing the sous vide system of encasing food in airtight plastic bags. Quelle horreur!

That change is the least of Jones’ problems. Restaurant people he burned hate him so much they chase him down the street, French drug dealers will stop at nothing (nothing!) to get the money he owes them, and the nicest thing a top food critic (Uma Thurman) can say to him is “one hoped you were dead.”

Not making things easier for the chef is that not even his hard times have diminished his weakness for cutting repartee. “My advice, chef,” a former associate tells him in all seriousness, “if you want to live a long life, eat your own tongue.”

Undaunted, Jones calls on his charisma and talent to round up a team to work with, including ace maitre d’ Tony (Daniel Bruhl) and old Paris rival Michel (Omar Sy). But the one person he’d really like, up-and-coming young chef and single mother Helene (the versatile Sienna Miller) turns out to be the only person in all London who can resist his charms. Imagine that.

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If you think it’s all going to go smoothly for Jones once he has his kitchen gang assembled, you underestimate screenwriter Knight’s gift for plot development and his ability to place an ever-increasing series of barely plausible obstacles in the chef’s path.

Because the main question here turns out to be not whether this culinary Rolling Stone (Knight’s image, not mine) can get his third star. Rather it’s whether he can become a decent person and rejoin the human race. That’s the kind of question movies like “Burnt” always like to ask.

As is usual in culinary cinema, great care has been taken to make the food photographed by cinematographer Adriano Goldman look quite tasty and authentic, even to the point of hiring celebrity chefs Marcus Wareing and Mario Batali as consultants.

But neither their presence nor that of actors like Emma Thompson and Alicia Vikander in cameos can earn this film the cinematic equivalent of Michelin stars. There have been numerous superior films about food, from “Babette’s Feast” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” through “Big Night,” “The Lunchbox,” even “Ratatouille.” “Burnt” is mildly diverting, but it’s just not in their league.

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Burnt’

MPAA rating: R, for language throughout

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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Playing: In general release

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