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September 17, 2008
FILM REVIEW: Burn
After Reading Follows the Coen Brothers Tradition
Burn After Reading
was not as good as some of the Coen brothers’ other creations, but it
was still pretty damn good.
The writing was typically unique, fresh and absurd – with an emphasis on
absurd. The essence of the movie was found in its absurdity, as it
followed around a group of people who would probably seem normal,
provided you don’t know them behind closed doors. And were it not for a
misplaced disc containing what appeared to be top-secret CIA
information, this group of people probably would have continued to live
ostensibly normal lives.
But as the Coen brothers have described in movies such as Fargo,
O Brother Where Art Thou and No Country for Old Men, it
only takes a nudge to push seemingly normal over an edge to which they
were much closer than anyone ever realized.
The casting was great, with effective performances running from the
primary characters to the secondary ones. If you have also grown tired
of watching Brad Pitt and George Clooney playing roles contrived in
order to congratulate themselves on their incalculable coolness, you may
find some relief in this picture, with Pitt especially. Playing a
personal trainer with shifty eyes and a pendulum-like emotional state,
he achieves a hilarious balance between stupidity and aloofness. John
Malkovich, playing the CIA agent who is fired for alcoholism, is
wonderfully volatile and hilariously angry. It’s not a huge divergence
from roles he’s played in the past, which could explain why he does such
a great job. J.R. Horne, who plays a divorce lawyer, is hilarious, which
is as much a credit to the writers as it is to Horne.
Many of the characters have a tendency toward being caricatures, which
the Coen brothers probably intended. But regardless of who’s
responsible, this tendency detracts from the reality of the film. And
believe me, there is a cutting realism in this movie.
There were times when it was downright depressing. Fargo was
similar to the feel of this movie except it stayed truer to the
believability of the story. Burn After Reading features a guy who
obviously knows nothing about anything but working out, a woman (Frances
McDormand) who bulldozes her way through dating web sites and is willing
to take confidential U.S. information to the Russians in order to make
the money needed for four different types of plastic surgery, a man who
cheated on his wife and his mistress (and also goes through
online dates like M&Ms), an alcoholic ex-CIA agent who quits his job to
write his memoirs and a few more absurd characters who I might as well
allow to surprise you on their own. The comedy was insufficient relief
to the discomfort of observing people who aren’t that much more absurd
than we are.
OK, I’m sure you’re perfectly normal, but we all know people who are
just as bad, or worse, than the ones in this movie. And if you think you
don’t, you probably just don’t know them that well.
The plot of the movie is as twisted as spaghetti, but by the time it
spirals past coherency, we realize that the bizarre and confusing
details really aren’t the point. To help us with the plot and the point,
the Coen brothers offer us two CIA agents, a boss and an inferior who
reports back to him about the details of these ridiculous characters.
Their role in the plot is to follow around the ex-CIA agent’s lost disc,
but clearly their actual role is to help the audience catch its breath.
They only had two scenes in the movie. The first is about a third of the
way in, when the inferior informs his boss about the lost information,
which they conclude is unimportant. The boss tells him to follow the
characters around and report back “when it makes sense.”
the end of the film, when the characters actually start killing each
other, the final scene between the two incredulous CIA officers takes
place. They ask each other, “What did we learn?” and the answer is, “I
But judging by this and other films by the Coen brothers, I think the
lesson they’re teaching is that people are pretty messed up. There is
one redeeming character in this movie, and that has become the average
of this writer/director-combo.
is well written, well acted and well shot. But don’t expect to leave the
theater laughing for very long.
Three stars out of four
© 2008 North Star Writers
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