Burn After Reading
You have to give the Coen
Brothers credit - they are certainly adamant in their determination to not
play to public perceptions and feel an almost obsessive need to change things up regularly, even when it
may not be the ideal commercial move.
On the surface of course,
Burn After Reading is as potentially marketable as the brothers ever
get. After all, it's a spy comedy starring George Clooney and Brad
Pitt. However, it is still an odd way to follow up last year's
acclaimed comeback film, the quirky modern melodrama of No Country For
Truth is, Joel and Ethan
have always flip-flopped from downbeat noir to goofy comedy, going back to
their first two films - Blood Simple followed by Raising Arizona.
Sometimes they even did it in the same film - Fargo was a comedy
woven together with tragedy, incompetence and violence. Even the Coens'
lightest comedies are usually punctuated by occasional bursts of shocking
violence. And their darkest films always have a quirky sense of humor.
If you have seen a Coen
comedy before, the goofy vibe of Burn After Reading will not be much
of a surprise to you - though if you are just catching up to them through
Old Men you may find yourself a bit confused. Coen Brothers
comedies tend to be very broad and sort of cartoonish, and Burn
After Reading follows suit.
Smart much better than the movie version of that series earlier this year. It is a tale of government
spying and incompetence in which the rot is so deep that you wonder how
anything ever gets done. (Come to think of it, this is sadly way too
prescient in the current political atmosphere). In fact, this film
captures the spy-agency-as-total-incompetents vibe of the old sitcom
Of course, the people on
the outside are no better - they are stupid, goofy, greedy and unable to
comprehend the depth of the trouble they are courting.
John Malkovich plays
Osborne Cox, a volatile operative who is removed from his job, perhaps due
to politics, perhaps due to a drinking problem. His marriage to a
frigid businesswoman (Tilda Swinton) was already on the rocks, she is in the
middle of an affair with another former-spook-turned-hired-muscle (George
Clooney), a married man with a slight lothario problem.
When a disk full of what
seems to be state secrets shows up at a Washington gym, a knuckleheaded
trainer (Brad Pitt) and an insecure aging instructor (Frances McDormand) try
to blackmail Cox for its return. The audience knows that what they
have is nearly worthless, but it still sets into motion a series of
connections and eventually deadly circumstances.
Like most Coen movies,
Burn After Reading has a timelessness. Sometimes it seems to be
taking place in the present day, sometimes in the past. There are some
distinctly current political jabs, yet the storyline is also charmingly
old-fashioned. These people are so out of touch that they still consider the
Russians to be the epitome of global threat. (Which will undoubtedly
please McCain supporters...)
Most of it seems a little
too coincidental, the characters are not overly believable and most of our
main characters' fates are decided off-camera. However, Burn After
Reading has a certain-go-for broke charm. And a bit part by
amazing character actor JK Simmons as a baffled, bureaucratic FBI director
is worth the price of admission alone.
Burn After Reading
is certainly a kind of odd film, but it is also an entertaining one.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: September 8, 2008.