Friday, September 12, 2008
BURN AFTER READING (Dirs. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, 2008)
You can’t get any more A-list than the cast of this movie. George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton are Oscar winners, John Malkovich has been nominated more than once, and Brad Pitt is, well, Brad Pitt (yes he’s been nominated too).
Mix in a couple of the most acclaimed character actors working today - Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, THE VISITOR) and J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson in the SPIDERMAN series, JUNO) and you've got as rich and tasty an cinematic ensemble soufflé that could be served today.
Coming off the ginormous success of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (yes, more Oscars) it seems the Coen Brothers needed to blow off some steam just as RAISING ARIZONA was the silly satirical followup to their dark debut BLOOD SIMPLE and THE BIG LEBOWSKI came right after FARGO, this is the ice cream to NO COUNTRY's full steak dinner. Okay, I’ll get off the food analogies. Seems somewhat pointless to try to recount the plot but I’ll still have a go at it. Malkovich is a boozing low level CIA agent whose files and memoirs are copied onto a disc by his wife (Swinton) after he is fired and she plans to divorce him.
The disc is found at the gym Hardbodies where McDormand and Pitt work who, the money-grubbing schemers that they are, plan to blackmail Malkovich with. Meanwhile Clooney (also an idiot) who is having an affair with Swinton meets McDormand on one of his many misadventures with online dating. Misadventures is the right word for all of this as we see these pathetic people go through a series of sloppily handled escapades.
The disc is, of course, a MacGuffin as its contents are unimportant and, as anyone in the film who studies it confirms, worthless. The conviction of McDormand, who wants the money to have extesive cosmetic surgery (“I’ve gone just about as far as I can go with this body”) coupled with Pitt's badly bleached blundering makes for a lot of laughs while Clooney’s wide eyed doltish womanizing brings his fair share of funny too. Malkovich's jaded jerk of a foul mouthed (his most repeated phrase throughout is “what the fuck?!!?” I think) failed spy won’t win him any awards but it’s among the finest comic acting of his career or at least since BEING JOHN MALKOVICH.
Swinton seems to be the only one that is ill at ease with the material though that's probably because her character is so ill at ease with these situations. “We don’t really know what anyone is after” J.K. Simmons as Malkovich’s former superior says in an indifferent ‘whatever’ manner at one point and I bet many critics will say the same about BURN AFTER READING. After the powerfully astute NO COUNTRY... this may seem merely a funny throw-away.
A high class but trivial piece that treads water between more ambitious efforts, I’m sure some will remark, but I believe there is a lot more going for it than that.
Sure, it would be easy to conclude that this is a silly statement on our current technology driven paranoia and that everybody is stupid, glib, and completely out for themselves but I think that would be dumbing it down considerably. With their patented low angles, wide interior shots, and the overall free for all spirit that they appear to instill in all the films participants, the offbeat world we are presented could only be Coen created - this is a view of their private sector, to use some Washington D.C. jargon.
Like many Coen Brothers movies this will take repeat viewings to fully appreciate and to formulate more of a take on where it stands in their canon. Right now I can only say that BURN AFTER READING is consistently hilarious with a host of A-listers at the top of their game and I’m looking forward to seeing it again. It’s an enjoyable and extremely silly sector that I’m glad they don't keep so private.