Friday, October 24, 2008

Review of Burn After Reading

This review orginally appeared in the October issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

I suspect some moviegoers might be disappointed in Joel and Ethan Coen's Burn After Reading, seeing how it doesn't replicate the philosophical, twisted grandeur of their Oscar-winning epic No Country for Old Men. However, Burn After Reading is a typical effort for the brothers, who never try to hit home runs every time out, the way that Martin Scorsese has in recent years. They're content to take genres--in this case, spy movies--out for a spin, never adhering to a template. It may not be a profitable tack, but it is a great way to build a legacy.

Burn After Reading is a nice addition. It begs for broad satirical swipes at our wacky government, but it's smarter, more heartfelt, and more biting than anticipated. The comedy features several characters embroiled in turmoil because of one man, Archibald Cox (John Malkovich), a mid-level CIA employee who quits his job. This angers his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who burns what she thinks is his financial information on a CD as ammunition for a divorce. The disc ends up in the hands of gym employees Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand) who see it as a payday from Cox. Bedlam ensues.

The disc isn't the movie, the same way that the Dude's rug wasn't the point to The Big Lebowski. And, really, who is in the mood for another cloak and dagger affair? For the Coens, it's all about highlighting their characters' foibles and the genre they're spoofing. Lives are changed over a disc that actually contains Cox's memoirs, which judging from his feeble dictating sessions, is bound to be rejected by publishing houses nationwide. Meanwhile, the characters' level of stupidity, whether it's natural or bred in upper-class status--is mystifying.

Cox is deluded enough to think that anyone would consider his memoir (or "memwoh," as he pronounces it) readable, while the philandering Katie decides to milk her husband for money when he's not making any. Linda looks great, but is consumed with improving herself through cosmetic surgery and not exercise, an odd stance for someone who works at a gym. Her beau Harry (George Clooney) has a loving wife who makes a fortune writing children's books, a deficit he makes up for by sleeping around and inventing a cool alter ego. As for Chad, this guy shouldn't be running a pretzel cart, never mind dealing with CIA matters.

Each actor is a stand-out, especially Pitt, whose blissfully moronic performance could be his best ever, and the indispensable McDormand, who nails the fragility and impatience of a perfectly nice woman who has nothing going for her. Like McDormand's human touch and Clooney's philandering as desperation, the Coens throw in a lot of little touches to keep us amused and engaged, like Chad riding a bike (and donning a helmet) to his rendezvous with Cox or the 20-second scene that shows Katie as possibly the worst pediatrician on the planet. I loved the brothers' swipe at lame romantic comedies (Pushing Up Daisy, anyone?) and the cult of celebrity. One morning news show thinks Dermot Mulroney, the star of The Wedding Date, warrants a two-part interview, which is about two too many.

According to the Coens, the world we live in is full of impatience, selfishness, delusion, and stupidity. It's so awful that sometimes the only thing you can do is sit back and laugh at the surroundings. Near the end of the film, a CIA employee (J.K. Simmons) asks another (David Rasche), "What did we learn?" The reply of "I don't know" is followed by, "F**k if I know what we did." Joel and Ethan have delivered a frothy, smart comedy while also warning us to keep our eyes open. At some point what we see here will cease being satire, if it hasn't already.

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