Burn After Reading
Burn After Reading, the latest Coen brothers offering, has baffled me. Not in terms of what happened or what it meant…no, this film has baffled me in terms of my own response to it. In other words, I have no idea whether or not I liked it.
I definitely enjoyed watching it…that much I know. The experience of spending two hours in a theater with this film was a pleasant one. The acting (on the whole) was great and the plot was complicated enough that I didn’t really have time to question anything until it was all over. But at the end I really wasn’t sure whether or not I liked the film.
I’m not a huge movie guy. I’ll watch them on DVD if I watch them at all. If I go to the movies I tend to go in spurts…and then not go again for a long time. Last year I had a spurt, and the movies I saw were all brilliant: Superbad, Juno and the Coens’ own No Country For Old Men. This year I had another spurt: Hamlet 2 was fantastic. The Dark Knight was pleasantly enjoyable. But Burn After Reading represents a stumble.
Maybe the fact that I can’t actually come out and say I disliked it means that its point missed me entirely…but I doubt that. More likely it’s just a film that tries a little too hard at certain points and not hard enough overall. I like the idea. I liked the characters. I even liked the ending in which we have all of the action summarized for us by two minor characters, who then leave us with an invitation to re-evaluate the film we’ve just seen. (Think a cross between Fargo’s absolute moral and No Country For Old Men’s metaphysical confusion.)
It was well-made. It was funny. It was tense. But in the end, it wasn’t really cohesive, and it strikes me as an example of a product amounting to far, far less than the sum of its parts.
The basic plot is that Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) chooses to resign from the CIA rather than accept a demotion, and he begins work on his memoirs. Somehow (it’s clear in the movie but not worth summarizing here) the memoirs—and a few financial records—end up found in a gym locker room. Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) take it as an opportunity to demand a huge ransom from the ex-CIA man, and a loose comedy of misfortunes ensues.
Alright, summarizing it makes it sound lousier than it actually is, but that’s only because I can’t get into it without giving away certain twists and plot reveals. I am the first person who will tell you that a movie that relies solely on the surprise of its twists doesn’t deserve to be made, but in this case the twists constitute the movie, and the plot goes through so much development that it feels like a character itself. Also—it has to be said—if you strip away the surprises, you’re not going to leave Burn After Reading’s audience with too much to enjoy.
A few of the characters stand out as excellent creations…particularly Linda and Chad. Linda spends the entire film trying everything she can think of to get the money for extensive plastic surgery. She is convinced that nobody can ever love her in the body that she has, despite the fact that she goes on many dates (they admittedly vary in quality but she’s never averse to sleeping with them) and that other characters in the film demonstrate significant attraction toward her. As far she can see, she is hideous. The ransom is going to serve as her ticket to a whole new face.
McDormand plays Linda extremely well. She’s a very versatile actress, and she manages to get across the stubbornness of a woman who isn’t a bad person, but who also refuses to see any of the good in the world right under her nose. In order to make her big change she takes a big step; so big, in fact, that she finds it quickly impossible to turn back.
The other Favorite Character is Chad, played wonderfully thick by Brad Pitt—of whom I’m almost never a fan. He’s excellent here. Far more than just comic relief, he’s a fully-rendered character in his own right. (Although, okay, I admit it…he’s basically there for comic relief.) He’s a sort of mindless prettyboy who is far too optimistic and clueless to even know what he’s getting himself into. Every scene featuring Pitt warrants a smile, if only because his vacuous, puppy-like expressions manage to shape a character who has never, at any point in his entire life, had anything interesting to say.
Less successful are…all of the other characters. Malkovich’s Cox is kind of restrained by the limits of his own script. He doesn’t get much to say or do. He makes an impression while he’s on-screen, but when he disappears he’s easily forgotten about. That’s okay—the story sort of requires that—but his character is never really fleshed out, and he comes across as a sort of generic cuckold.
Tilda Swinton plays his wife, who is sleeping with George Clooney, who is also married to a woman sleeping around on him. George Clooney sleeps with Frances McDormand, too. And he builds his wife a chair with a dildo that pops up through the seat. At this point I’m wondering why I’m even writing a review.
Swinton’s character is a little too unbelievably cold. She’s not sympathetic in any sense, ever, at any point, which is surprising to me. The Coens are better writers than that; she deserves some substance. But as it stands you could remove her character entirely and replace it with a few sentences of narration and the film would be no poorer for it.
Clooney, on the other hand, seems to be too much character. He’s a mess of mis-speakings, overthinking and nervous tics. He always, in every scene, seems like he’s experiencing dozens of small internal explosions. Every time the character opened his mouth I expected blood to gush out. He’s Ulysses Everett McGill without any depth or charm, and he’s also continuously irritating by his presence alone. Despite my misgivings about the other characters, only Clooney managed to keep me aware that I was watching an actor…which I guess is some kind of achievement.
If this film came earlier in the career of the Coens, it’d fit much better. It seems to sparkle with promises it’s making but will be unable to keep. But by this point we know they are great film-makers, and so the bar is higher. They can do—and have done, and will do—much better.
As it stands, Burn After Reading just felt like an amalgam of the brothers’ superior films. Its grisly murders and chaos over a small sum is pure Fargo (and No Country For Old Men, to be fair). Its average-Joe-in-detective-fiction was handled better (and funnier) by The Big Lebowski. And the soundtrack borrows heavily from the piano-based melancholy of The Man Who Wasn’t There.
And yet, I can’t say whether I liked it or disliked it. Which means, of course, that on some level the Coens succeeded. I know that they want to leave their audience in a state of uncertainty when the film is over. That’s okay. But a film like this should invite another viewing…a reappraisal.
Instead, it just left me feeling as though the story didn’t deserve a second chance. Whatever good there was they’ve handled better before. I think I’ll just re-watch one of those films instead.