September 15, 2008

REVIEW: Burn After Reading (B+)

While my wish for a Coen Bros. sighting/introduction (they're here filming A Serious Man) at the promo screening of Burn After Reading last week went unfulfilled, my expectations for a distinctly Coenesque comedy were easily met: bizarre characters, dark humor, and a downward spiraling story.

The star power in Burn After Reading is in stark contrast to most of the Coens' films, including last year's Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men, and especially compared to A Serious Man, which will feature no one you've ever heard of. Indeed, the five actors listed on the marquee for Burn After Reading have all been nominated for acting Oscars, and three of them (George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton) have won. Add in the Coens' own writing and directing Oscars and you have what might be the most impressive ensemble of any movie so far this year.

This is not a fact that can be easily overlooked, because the characters written by Joel and Ethan Coen could not be trusted in the hands of amateur actors. From McDormand's neurotic Linda Litzke to John Malkovich's nihilistic Osborne Cox to Brad Pitt's naive Chad Feldheimer, we have some of the most engaging (yet also some of the most one-dimensional) personalities of any of the Coens' thirteen movies. While these three characters left the most distinct impression on me as I look back on Burn After Reading (including my favorite line - Pitt's laugh about the Schwinn), the rest of the cast is most certainly deserving of high praise as well. Richard Jenkins revives and softens his Walter Vale persona from The Visitor, J.K. Simmons dials in one of the most hilarious C.I.A. chiefs in recent memory (even somewhat reminiscent of his indifferent Mac MacGuff in Juno), and Tilda Swinton and George Clooney face off again in an amusing "what if?" scenario that could have been tacked onto the end of Michael Clayton.

I'm zeroing in on the characters ahead of the story here because they're where the heart of Burn After Reading beats most loudly (that is, when it's not drowned out by Carter Burwell's driving score, which I can only assume he developed to make up for his muted tones in No Country for Old Men). Yes, the characters are where this movie lives, if only because the plot is, to be frank, kind of stupid. A U.S. agent and a couple of gym employees get caught up in the messy divorce of a disaffected ex-C.I.A. analyst? That's it?

Yeah, that's it alright, but if there's anything more idiotic than the story, it's the absurd manner in which these characters interact with each other, and while it's what provides consistent humor throughout the movie, it's ironically also the one place that criticism of the film can be directed. At times I felt the Coens were going for laughs a little too easily, relying only on the goofy mannerisms that the actors seemed to create on their own. Instead of the rapid-fire writing of the The Big Lebowski or the cultural wink-winks of Fargo, the Coens seemed to be content, for example, just filming Brad Pitt run wildly on a treadmill. In fact, I was almost expecting us to witness Pitt experience the stereotypical and completely unfunny bike accident that would send him flying over the handlebars onto the hood of a car. This didn't happen, of course, but my point (and it may be an unfair one) is that the spirit of some of the biggest laughs in Burn After Reading unfortunately reminded me of Step Brothers: idiots screaming obscenities at each other.

On the other hand, I would be selling the Coens short if I didn't also acknowledge the wry, almost subversive humor that pokes fun at U.S. intelligence agencies and, for that matter, generations of spy thrillers. While taking aim at a bureaucracy with the traditional
"nobody knows that they're doing" ammo, the Coens still manage to dress up the comedy with timely references to internet dating and U.S.-Russian relations. Moreover, I do have to admit that the brothers have once again successfully "captured a culture": the Beltway, where everyone is suspicious and loyalties are traded like baseball cards. From what I know about living and working in Washington, D.C., Burn After Reading's portrayal of a cloaked, almost comically paranoid environment is not too far off the mark. For the sake of our national security, however, I sure hope the depictions of those internal C.I.A. meetings are.

The jocular tone, violent irony, and surehanded style of Burn After Reading will come as no surprise to those who have seen other comedies by the Coen brothers, but it will be interesting to see if the general moviegoing public, perhaps most familiar with No Country for Old Men, will give this one a chance (though the rabid Pitt and Clooney fans will surely help). It's not quite as immediately appealing as The Big Lebowski, but if nothing else it's proof that the brothers are still masters of their own uniquely distinctive form; the films of few other filmmakers these days are so immediately recognizable - or entertaining.

Writing - 8
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 4
Social Significance - 3

Total: 44/50= 88% = B+


  1. I must see this film, and I will, despite my illness about which I wrote earlier today at LiC.

    Then I'll have to write my review, and then finally I'll be able to read everyone else's...

  2. I like your new review format Daniel, and I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the film. This is probably one of the most wholly entertaining films I've seen all year.

  3. You're certain to have a much better analysis than me, Alexander, so I look forward to it. Nothing like a movie to distract your senses for a couple of hours, by the way.

    Thank you, Matthew. It turns out that nobody's really saying anything but tempered praise for this so far. Kind of interesting...

    Anyway, yes I was entertained from the first frame to the abrupt finale.

  4. True, Dan, I haven't yet read an even middling response on it. But I am with the majority this time, and the picture was just too damn entertaining and outrageous. My own favorite line? Probably the Mormon-drinking one near the beginning, but yours is great too. You make some insightful points about the character traits and living in Washington. And I like your new review format as well.

  5. Great review Daniel. I think, however, you've underestimated Burwell's score. It's overbearing, pretentious nature is precisely the point, and serves a major theme of the film: that despite all the portent and pomp and circumstance, there is no there there.

    The script, camera angles, music, editing all point to Big Things, Big Themes and Dark Doings; turns out that there's not any. The CIA -- and spy movies in general? -- are all sound and fury signifying nothing.

    My own review is up at Coosa Creek: if you want, you can read more of my thoughts along that line here.

  6. Thanks, Sam. The Mormon line was a killer in the opening minutes as well, but it was set up too easily for me, at least compared with the Schwinn. Don't know why I loved that line so much!

    Thank you, Rick, and I did see your excellent thoughts on BaR, as good as I've seen anywhere else. Your theory about the score is pretty interesting, and it makes perfect sense. You read deeply, my friend.

  7. "the Coens seemed to be content, for example, just filming Brad Pitt run wildly on a treadmill." I would take this as a compliment, rather than a criticism.

    For me this was among the Coens least pretentious and most straight forward affairs that still managed to retain their unique Coen-ness. After the existential pondering inspired by No Country, it was almost a relief.

    A complete breath of fresh air and I loved it from beginning to end.

    Will it hold up to time? or get better? I can't say. For now, I'm completely happy with it.

  8. I'm with you in all of that, Craig. The Pitt character just seemed to be a little outrageous even by Coen standards. But I can hardly complain. Like I said, the Schwinn line just killed me, and overall I was surprised to find Pitt had that much comedic potential.

    Speaking of existential pondering, though, you could still read into it that deeply if you wanted to. You and I haven't, but I've seen others have. Just part of the Coen phenomenon.

  9. "the rabid Pitt and Clooney fans will surely help"

    Count me in this club. I had fun watching them and all the others play it loose and easy, almost like this was an extended trip into Ocean's land with a different tone and intentions but with similar results.

    And I agree with Rick about the score. Unrelated to that, it felt very Fargo to me.

  10. Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he's not taking himself too seriously... in any case, it's about time someone made good use of his habitually spastic arm movements

  11. Interesting, Fletch. Even with Pitt and Clooney together, I never made the Ocean's connection. In any case, I'm glad the movie retained its Coen-ness despite having those two hamming it up. I was worried they might be too distracting, but that didn't end up happening.

    I agree, moviebuff, and I'm glad he played it over-the-top and didn't try to play the cool guy at the same time.

  12. Spot-on review here, Daniel, it was more than worth the wait. :)

  13. Thanks for checking back, Alexander. It was magazine fodder compared to your academic tome!

  14. What the crap!!! I check this site everyday and all the sudden FIVE new reviews in one day!!! What gives!!! p.s. Appaloosa = C (couldn't stand whatsherface) And whats with all these foreign actors playing Western roles??? (3:10 to Yuma) Reminds me of Planet B-boy.

  15. Yeah I was sitting on a couple of these reviews for while, like Flash of Genius. Figured I'd throw everything out at once.

    I'm going paste and respond to your Appaloosa thoughts on that thread...


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