Movie Reviews

Half-Ass Movie Review: Burn After Reading (Sept 15)

Sometimes it seems like the Coen Brothers are actively working to stymie moviegoers. After last year’s multiple Oscar-winning triumph, No Country for Old Men, they’ve returned to their long-running obsession with idiots for the comedy Burn After Reading. Their longtime fans have come to accept massive tonal shifts between movies, but anybody who waited until they racked up those awards is likely to be perplexed.

And critically, well, their movies have generally opened to a mixed reception. Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou all met with largely disinterested, or occasionally hostile, reviews; and now all three are cited as being the standards which their new movies fail to meet. (I’m eagerly awaiting the official critical turn on The Ladykillers, which I loved.) Luckily, the Coens have never seemed that interested in pleasing critics anyway.

Burn After Reading works as both a parody of the espionage genre and as a comedy about petty people who make bad choices. It swings wildly between subtle and goofy, with occasional moments of horrifying violence. It’s just the sort of glorious mess that the Coens perfected with Raising Arizona.

Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst, demoted from his position on the Balkans desk. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) is ready to leave him for her lover, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Pfarrer is a “Treasury guy” who worked for the US Marshals for 20 years and never discharged his weapon. He also trolls for sexual conquests on the Internet, is fascinated with hardwood floors, and is pretty sure that he’s being followed. (His wife, by the way, writes children’s book about a cat who lives in the Capitol Rotunda.) Harry is sleeping with Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a gym employee who needs money for plastic surgery. (Including removing her vaccination scar.) And her co-worker is Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a well-meaning moron who dances to music nobody else can hear.

After the introductions, the plot kicks into gear when a CD containing what may or may not be classified information turns up on a locker room floor. Linda and Chad end up inadvertently blackmailing Cox, and then things head off into sheer lunacy. At one point, two CIA agents actually have to recap the plot for the audience. Says the officer played by JK Simmons, “Keep an eye on everybody and let me know, well, let me know when it makes sense.”

Burn After Reading, while tonally the opposite of No Country for Old Men, also comes across as a reverse Big Lebowski. Lebowski featured a completely inactive hero, tangentially related to a complex storyline in which the rich and powerful play out their private battles. In Burn, the government is The Dude. The CIA isn’t sure what’s going on, but it’s really just regular people who are not nearly as smart as they think they are. The CIA is looking for a deeper meaning, but it’s really all just lust, vanity, greed, and several other deadly sins. Whether the CIA represents the critical community, who will no doubt attempt to read meaning into the script now that the Coens are officially Serious Filmmakers, or whether it’s just part of the comedy is up to the viewer.

George Clooney has proven to be a funny man, both in his previous films with the Coens and in various other roles. And here, he’s a twitchy delight. From the way he overchews his food to his surprisingly expressive eyes, Clooney doesn’t mind looking like a dope in the service of comedy. Frances McDormand, a Coen mainstay (what with being married to Joel Coen and all), does a fantastic job. She’s wounded but still positive. Her Linda is the most active character in the movie. In her head, she’s in a normal spy movie, where heading to the Russian Embassy with a CD of secrets makes some kind of sense.

Brad Pitt is legitimately surprising. Other than the Ocean’s 11 series, I can’t remember a time when he’s really played a comedic role, but he commits to the role of Chad with real dedication. His body language is hilarious – all wild movements and misplaced enthusiasm. Everything, from the way he drinks from his water bottle (out of one side of his mouth – like the way Popeye drinks) to the way he narrows his eyes to little slits when trying to be intimidating, is funny. He gets a great monologue in which Chad attempts to analyze data, and it’s much funnier than anything that silly really should be.

John Malkovich manages to combine creepy and pathetic into a really funny performance. It’s probably his best role since people started climbing into his head for fun and profit. Tilda Swinton is, frankly, a little bit scary. She’s so icy. Imagine if her character from Chronicles of Narnia were a pediatrician. Scary, right? Like Pitt, she hasn’t really done comedy before, but she fits right in.

This is the Coen’s first completely original screenplay since 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty (No Country was adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel and The Ladykillers was a loose remake of a 1955 film.), and they seem to be reveling in the structural freedom. It’s pure Coen, without any other guiding principles. And it’s funny. It may even be their most purely funny movie since 1987’s Raising Arizona. (Which beats Lebowski by only a hair.) A lunatic script, a group of actors who don’t care how stupid they look, and two filmmakers who have never put much thought into their reputation – it’s a recipe for insane fun. And besides, three or four movies down the line, Burn After Reading will be cited as a classic in order to disparage the Coens’ newest release.

And for the real devotees, Burn features their sneakiest Bruce Campbell reference yet. You’ll need the eyes of a falcon to get this one. And not just a regular falcon – one of those stalker falcons.

Score: Four and a half beans

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