September 11, 2008

Burn After Reading

Tonight's feature presentation: "Righteous Kill"


Grade: B
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and Richard Jenkins
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 36 minutes


I probably rehash the following observation every time I review a Coen Brothers' movie, but it always bears restating: the corrosive influence of greed and/or temptation are the overriding themes in nearly every one of their films. The sometimes compulsory, always creative ways the Coens conjure their moral(istic) object lessons rank them among the most acclaimed American filmmakers of the last half-century.

In that vein, Burn After Reading is a return to classic Coens: a black comic rendering of morally duplicitous people lured and eventually destroyed by greed, yes, but more so the lure of a life supposedly better than their own. Such was the theme to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, the last original screenplay the Coens penned. Yet, as the Coens enter their 50s, what has changed is the cynical edge of their material – call it cranky Coens. At the end of Raising Arizona, the baby gets returned to his family while H.I. and Ed settle down for a long life together. In Fargo and Blood Simple, the bad guys get their comeuppance while the righteous are left to ponder the inanity of it all. A change of sorts is found in the Coens’ last film, the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men; sure, Tommy Lee Jones is left scratching his head at a devolving world, but Anton Chigurh also gets to walk away, battered but alive to kill another day.

In many ways, Burn After Reading is even more pessimistic, despite the fact that it is more of a smiling cobra. An A-list cast gets to cut loose by cutting up, but unlike the Coens’ previous moral plays, there isn’t a canary to be found in this nefarious coalmine. A disgruntled, chronically drunk ex-CIA analyst, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), decides to write his memoirs. At the same time, his ice-cold wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is having an affair with a married, low-level Treasury agent (George Clooney), whose penchants run the gambit from post-coital 5-mile jogs to exotic food allergies. When Katie decides to file for divorce, she copies the family finances along with Osborne’s memoir onto a CD. A copy accidentally turns up at the local Hardbodies and into the hands of two dimwitted gym employees, Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand), herself locked in an ongoing struggle over how to pay for some “much-needed” cap-a-pie cosmetic surgery.

Linda and Chad’s attempt to return the disc to Osborne – with the expectation of compensation, natch – is met by Osborne’s raging temper. Convoluted circumstances also involving the Internet dating phenomenon eventually bring each character into the same orbit, with disastrous consequences. Private eyes are mistaken for G-Men and chance encounters are viewed with heavy suspicion. In this postmodern satire, greed and paranoia form a combustible concoction in which the hoi polloi reflexively buy into whatever bogey man the government or infotainment conglomerates prop up, whether it is domestic surveillance or rivals from abroad. “The Russians?!,” a CIA chief (J.K. Simmons) repeats with puzzlement when he is informed that Linda and Chad tried to sell their disc of Osborne’s “drivel” to the Russian consulate. [You couldn’t blame them if they’ve been listening to our current presidential campaigns, who have recently dusted off old Cold War rhetoric to gin up votes.]

The subtle brilliance of Burn After Reading is that it is really an anti-spy, nonpolitical film, where the governmental espionage is a MacGuffin masking the fact that the actual intrigue flows wholly from the foibles of flawed, regular people who, although living in an increasingly interconnected world, are more personally estranged from their neighbors than ever. All the while, the actual intelligence community watches on both bemused and confused, armed with near omnipresence - if not omnipotence - but clueless as to how to exercise their power.

Unfortunately, that disengagement also leads the Coens to yet another truncated, shoulder-shrug ending, a la No Country for Old Men, made worse by the fact that nearly all the key climactic events take place off-camera and are only vocalized by bureaucrats trying to make sense of it all, postmortem. “So, what did we learn?”, asks Simmons’ CIA head. Only that the Coens are not yet willing, or able, to share the answer to that question.

Neil Morris

2 comments:

free movies said...

A stellar cast and the usual percolating plot of the Coens combine in one of their most entertaining crime comedies to date. Funny stuff with Clooney, McDormand and Malkovich frame a breakthrough comedic performance by Brad Pitt.

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patrick r said...

Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he's not taking himself too seriously... in any case, it's about time someone made good use of his habitually spastic arm movements