BURNT and OUR BRAND IS CRISIS
This past weekend brought with it not only Bradley Cooper in the genius-chef-in-crisis drama Burnt, but also Our Brand Is Crisis, in which Sandra Bullock plays a political strategist running a Bolivian presidential campaign. You know what this means, right? It may be happening on neighboring screens, but after six long years, we're finally treated to the All About Steve reunion no one was asking for!
Happily, neither new release is anywhere near as wretched as that notorious 2009 Cooper/Bullock rom-com, and Burnt is actually quite easy to sit through. The movie's not great, by any means, but like the Burger King meal that Cooper's chef Adam Jones consumes in the film, you can enjoy the overall flavor even though it adheres to a painfully strict recipe and probably isn't very good for you. (Beyond Cooper dining on a Whopper, the BK logo appears on the side of an on-screen dumpster here, making Burnt likely the first movie about haute cuisine to feature blatant product placement for a fast-food franchise.) Director John Wells' and screenwriter Steven Knight's redemption saga finds culinary master and former drug addict Jones moving to London after a self-imposed exile in New Orleans, and strong-arming his way into a head-chef position where he's determined to earn an elusive third Michelin star. (As we non-foodies learned from The Hundred-Foot Journey, such stars are really, really big deals for restaurateurs; Helen Mirren wept with joy when she nabbed her second one.) But the path to redemption is never smooth, so in addition to tackling sobriety, the sociopathically determined Jones must also contend with uncomprehending employees, rival chefs angered by his return, seedy gangsters to whom he owes drug money, a beautiful but spiky sous chef (Sienna Miller) with whom he'll inevitably fall in love, and, of course, his own demons. Specifically, the self-loathing and insecurity that make Jones unable to seek emotional help from others, even though, as Miller's chef tells him, "You can't do it alone. No one can." I'm sorry, but didn't Miller express that exact sentiment to Cooper earlier this year in American Sniper?
The whole movie tends to inspire a similar feeling of déjà vu, be it from the rather astoundingly formulaic plotting or the snooty stereotypes the words haute cuisine practically demand. (There's even over-familiarity in the casting, because lo and behold, in her thousandth film appearance of 2015, there's Alicia Vikander!) Yet Wells helms the proceedings with electricity and effectiveness - which, after his moribund August: Osage County adaptation, comes as a bit of a shock - and Knight at least graces his stock storytelling with some zippy banter, plus one doozy of a late-film plot twist that almost made me gasp. (The bit would've had far more resonance, though, if Burnt's narrative didn't force Knight to add a "Just kidding!" tag a few scenes later.) Cooper, occasionally speaking in impressively fluent French, gives a charismatic, soulful, terrifically entertaining performance; someone sure has come a long way in the years since All About Steve. With solid turns provided by Emma Thompson, Daniel Brühl, Matthew Rhys, Omar Sy, and, for one grin-inducing scene, Uma Thurman, Miller is quick-witted and charming. (She certainly shares more chemistry with her co-star here than she did in American Sniper, even though she must be getting a little tired of acting as Cooper's cinematic support system.) And, of course, you can't discount those sublimely mouth-watering food-porn montages, with legendary restaurateur Gordon Ramsay given "Executive Chef Consultant & Dishes Created by" recognition in the opening credits. Not-bad though it is, Burnt isn't much of a movie. But it would make one hell of a cookbook.
Meanwhile, I'm not sure what we're to make of Our Brand Is Crisis, although director David Gordon Green and screenwriter Peter Straughan have certainly concocted a mess. The short version of its 110 minutes is that Sandra Bullock's "Calamity" Jane Bodine wants to get her guy elected, Billy Bob Thornton's strategist wants to get his guy elected, and these longtime rivals will pull out any dirty trick, maudlin ploy, or practical joke in their arsenal to ensure victory. Unfortunately, the movie is nowhere near the madcap lark that synopsis suggests. What it's actually meant to be is anyone's guess.
Green's outing is too vague about its particulars to succeed as satire and too halfhearted in its yuks to be a juicy slapstick, despite Bullock performing shtick involving high-altitude nausea, an uncooperative folding chair, and a slingshot made of mattress elastic. Straughan's dialogue isn't sharp enough to suggest an attempted verbal comedy, and the film's forays into dramatic terrain, especially in Bodine's Burnt-ian redemption, feel extraneous and underdeveloped. I guess you could call the film a character study, but while we're introduced to a lot of characters - Bodine's crisis-management team, her candidate Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), numerous members of the Bolivian lower class - none of them is allowed any depth or complexity, with Castillo's own political leanings all but wholly unexplored. (It's a movie about politics that doesn't seem at all interested in politics.) And everyone's timing seems off. Green can't score a laugh or minor thrill even when a pair of campaign buses plays an ill-advised game of chicken on a Bolivian mountainside, and none of the actors - including the normally excellent Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, and Zoe Kazan - gets a solid rhythm going with any of their co-stars. Our Brand Is Crisis is something merely to be stared at and tolerated, but there can be little doubt that its climactic moralizing at least sounds better, and less patronizing, coming from Bullock than it likely would've from co-producer George Clooney, for whom Bullock's role was initially earmarked. I hear that Bullock is now also headlining a female-centric reboot of Ocean's Eleven. I'm not worried about her recent career arc just yet, but if she gets fitted for a Batman costume any time soon, an intervention may be called for.
I have a friend who, like nearly everyone I know, really likes Cate Blanchett. But he says he's immediately thrown out of the reality of her movies the moment they land on the prototypical Cate Blanchett shot - that of the performer looking anguished and borderline-crazy with runny mascara. (Call it Notes on a Scandal Syndrome.) I consequently told my buddy he was probably better off skipping director James Vanderbilt's Truth, given that its star approaches full Blue Jasmine - smudgy-eyed, popping Xanax, looking like an impossibly beautiful nutjob - by the end of her very first scene. I'll admit that her teary, Blanche DuBois mania has perhaps become an overly familiar acting effect, not unlike Claire Danes' quivering chin or Viola Davis' ability to weep from her nose. But my own truth is that I'm on Cloud Nine whenever I get to see Blanchett in this state of operatic meltdown, and her fevered intensity here is one of only a few things that Truth truly has going for it.
One of the others, thankfully, is the tale being told, which explores the lead-up to, and disastrous results of, 2004's 60 Minutes II piece alleging that family connections and a dubious National Guard tenure kept then-President George W. Bush from serving in Vietnam. Those who remember the scandal, in which producer Mary Mapes was accused of employing falsified documents to make her case, will likely also remember the ramifications, with Mapes and numerous other CBS employees losing their jobs, and Dan Rather stepping down as evening-news anchor. Vanderbilt was right to want to film this story (based on Mapes' book), considering it's jam-packed with fascinating, thorny detours involving journalistic ethics, corporate sponsorship, Internet paranoia, and the frightening reaches of political power. Truth, however, rarely approaches the grandeur of its themes. Its compositions are static and mannered, its dialogue is flat in that well-meaning-TV-movie way, and the accomplishments of Mapes and her research team - played by Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, and a sadly immaterial Elisabeth Moss - are treated with a respect more closely resembling hagiography. (Wait for the slow-motion sequence of the astonished masses watching 60 Minutes II from their workplaces and local taverns, their unblinking, hypnotized expressions accompanied by a heavenly wail suggesting the second coming of Enya.) Most damagingly of all, Robert Redford portrays Dan Rather, and if the idea of his casting seems ridiculous, it might be even more so in practice. He's pleasant, as usual, and on occasion you can even see him attempting a Rather impersonation, particularly in his clipped consonants and meaningfully raised eyebrow. Yet there's no avoiding the fact that Redford looks and sounds nothing like Dan Rather; in movie after movie, he's never looked or sounded like anyone other than Robert Redford. And every time Vanderbilt's film cuts to the journalist conducting an interview or just sitting at his anchor desk, it turns into an unfunny, feature-length SNL skit apparently written because the show's aging-lion guest host had to appear in something.
Yet for all my carping, I'll admit that Truth will no doubt be the rare movie dud that I'll readily own, because in her role as Mary Mapes, Blanchett gives one of those gutsy, ferocious, hugely satisfying screen performances that turns your complaints into mere quibbles. (Hell, I'd buy it just for the pleasure of two hours spent gazing at her cheekbones.) Much of her material is wanting, and she's unknowingly forced into competing with the obnoxiousness of Brian Tyler's score, which swells with emotion even though Blanchett is conveying those emotions just fine on her own, thank you very much. But everything about her star turn is thrilling: Mapes' professional joy at breaking the Abu Ghraib story; her fierce intelligence and embitterment when trying to placate a flip-flopping National Guard vet (a perfect Stacy Keach); her defeated slumps into the arms of her husband (an underused but lovely John Benjamin Hickey); her throaty, self-righteous anger toward condescending CBS suits (Bruce Greenwood, Dermot Mulroney, and many others); her tender, familiar rapport with Rather. (Redford, unsurprisingly, is at his best in his scenes with Blanchett, delivering in kind the warmth she extends to him.) There have been better cinematic procedurals than Vanderbilt's Truth - one of them, Zodiac, actually written by Vanderbilt - but it's hard to think of one boasting a leading portrayal quite as strong as Blanchett's. While the movie ends on a relatively downbeat note, work as fine as this can keep you smiling for days.