Politics & Policy

Burnt: Reflections of Our Politics

Bradley Cooper and screenwriter Steven Knight rise while Tarantino stoops.

If there were such a thing as movie stars any more, Bradley Cooper would be one. In this age of media celebrities, Cooper pursues his craft in roles that embody contemporary social tensions, most impressively as Chris Kyle in American Sniper and now in the culinary character study Burnt.

As Adam Jones, an American who went to Europe at age 19 to study to become a world-class chef, Cooper updates the old-fashioned junior-year-abroad prototype (from the era when young Americans believed in personal global expansion) into the modern entitlement archetype. Adam is introduced as a burnt-out case, having reached the heights of the Paris restaurant scene, but then losing it all through egoistic drug and sex debauchery — also following Graham Greene’s 1960 novel, A Burnt-Out Case, about a cynic who seeks redemption working at a medical mission in Africa.

But Burnt replaces Greene’s expressly Catholic absolution with up-to-the-minute notions about recovery and achievement. Cooper exemplifies this arrogance through Adam’s steely-eyed, frat-boy intensity — the same that made Cooper a box-office celebrity in Wedding Crashers and the Hangover series. It is interesting to see Cooper deepen, and convert, his wastrel image. He makes credible Adam’s sense of regret without losing the arrogance that is always just beneath the surface of his exhaustion — and his inexhaustible artistic (culinary) passion.

Like Adam himself, Burnt is charming mostly for what it ought it to be (like the original Adam?). Metaphorically, the film aligns a civilian’s moral and spiritual quest with its current political equivalent: Success, fame, and power are all that entice Adam; he’s already been awarded two Michelin stars and desperately wants a third to prove his rehabilitation. On his way back to prominence, he has to enlist many of the people he has hurt (rivals Omar Sy and Matthew Rhys), disappointed (infatuated gay hotelier Daniel Brühl), or betrayed (ex-lover Alicia Vikander), and even a new potential victim (aspiring chef Sienna Miller).

When a populist filmmaker like Steven Spielberg goes bad, as in Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, it’s restorative to see a film — and an actor — get personal politics right.

Adam’s path recalls a political candidate’s in the way his ruthless search for approval matches our era’s unique self-involvement and social isolation. Only a few recent films have addressed this Millennial phenomenon — Eli Roth’s Knock Knock, for example, and Sebastian Silva’s Nasty Baby, each of them satirizing the self-satisfaction behind our social and spiritual polarization. But Cooper has the good actor’s gift for making this crisis especially felt. It’s the same recognizable force and inner strength he brought to American Sniper’s enigmatic heroism. (Burnt reminds me of the frustration that American Sniper wasn’t more properly titled American Sharpshooter.)

Cooper’s role here is sharply focused by screenwriter Steven Knight, author of the superb William Wilberforce biopic Amazing Grace. Knight doesn’t achieve Graham Greene’s hermeneutical depth, but he has an astute and witty grasp of modern behavior (as in last year’s Locke, the one-man Tom Hardy vehicle, which Knight wrote and directed, about a contractor’s personal struggle, symbolizing Millennial unease). In Burnt, Knight shows a fleet but real understanding of working-class anxiety — the hard, mundane routine of a professional kitchen. (Adam lives in the hotel that sponsors his new restaurant venture, a situation similar to the one in Knight’s 2002 Dirty Pretty Things script, but without its glib contrivance.) Burnt works because Knight gets a second pass at the foodie theme he fumbled in last year’s exasperating The Hundred-Foot Journey, and the practice makes him this movie’s real star.

#share#Knight writes scenes with vivid human interaction. A restaurant critic relents to Adam’s charisma: “I said to myself, ‘Simone, you’re a lesbian, why did you sleep with Adam Jones?’” A competitor taunts Adam: “What happened to your angel face?” And after going on a relapse bender, Adam wakes up in a rival’s apartment and asks, “Is this Hell?” His rescuer answers, “Mercy for your enemy is a kind of hell.” That’s the closest Knight gets to Greene’s Catholic existentialism, and it penetrates the film’s faddish celebration of competence. It also questions the myth of artistry and genius, which has infected our culture’s politics during the current administration. If we can’t get this insight from our partisan news media, it’s good to learn it from the movies.

#related#When a populist filmmaker like Steven Spielberg goes bad, as in Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, it’s restorative to see a film — and an actor — get personal politics right. Burnt addresses spiritual and moral aspiration, even if the lead character isn’t conscious of doing such. Unfortunately, when Adam’s therapist (Emma Thompson) encourages him to join group counseling, she offers a homily — “There’s strength in needing others” — that makes the film go sappy. Greene would never have been so vapid. Yet director John Wells has a scene Greene might have envied: Adam presents a rose-petal-frosted birthday cake to a staff member’s child. It’s a visual miracle.

Alas, Wells shows his TV-taught dullness when he rack-focuses the rapprochement between Adam and his admiring gay boss, losing their crucial brotherly exchange. Too often, Burnt falls back on therapeutic nostrums (“We do what we do and we do it together”), but the good moment where Cooper reveals Adam’s obsessive, 5 a.m. list of regrets (“like a broken record”) lets an actor touch a moviegoer’s soul. That’s what movie stars used to do.

*      *      *

Tarantino protests in New York. (Kena Betancur/Getty)

Eli Roth’s newly achieved social perspective in the action films The Green Inferno and Knock Knock made me wonder about his politics — and those of his confrere Quentin Tarantino. Now that QT has joined the Black Lives Matter brigade, calling American police “murderers” in anticipation of his upcoming holiday movie, I’d like to suggest that we still don’t know his politics — and neither does QT himself. His newfound pseudo-activism is no different from Hollywood self-promotion. It’s completely consistent with the tortured racism and jokey sadism of his nihilistic movies. By stooping to the sentiments of at least part of his audience (the most misguided part — those who were dazzled by the racial defamation of QT’s “Dead N****r Storage” soliloquy in Pulp Fiction), QT continues to manufacture what a politician once called “nightmares of depravity.”

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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