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+