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Film Reviews

Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading: Reviewed
John Doran , October 16th, 2008 12:55

True Coen brothers fans will happily sit through their mediocre films in order to get to the great ones. The Quietus happily sits through the latest

Last Oscar season, we saw supremely talented filmmakers get back to basics in order to snatch some statuettes. Paul Thomas Anderson toned down his more idiosyncratic tendencies as an auteur filmmaker in order to birth a fully alive character, Daniel Plainview, a villain that will stay with us in film mythology for years; while Ethan and Joel Coen gave us the equally scary though more frequently homicidal Anton Chigurh. There Will Be Blood... and No Country for Old Men owe much to the moving performances delivered by their respective stars, but they also both are edifices built on the bedrock of solid literary sources, and the latter film probably relies even more heavily on the original work of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy than the former does on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!

Without too much preaching from the Robert Mckee pulpit, it’s clear that both of these films are examples of skilled filmmakers dutifully serving the requirements of presenting great stories. Unfortunately, the Coen brothers’ most recent film, Burn After Reading reveals through contrast just how much sublimation probably took place in order to produce a gem like No Country.

Burn After Reading is the goofy fraternal twin of No Country: a black comedy that explores a humorous but highly contrived confluence of the Washington D.C. intelligence community and a group of adulterers, made from a script that the Coen brothers wrote simultaneously while pounding out their more sculpted and serious Oscar winner. Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is a disgruntled, Princeton-pedigreed CIA analyst who, following a demotion, decides to finish his memoirs, which is CIA code for go on a bender. His emotional collapse effectively cripples his unhappy marriage to the physician Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), who in turn puts pressure on her lover, the affable U.S. Marshall Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) to exit his own faltering relationship, a move that threatens to complicate his treasured internet dating hobby.

By a ridiculous chance occurrence, a rough digital copy of Cox’s memoirs falls into the hands of Linda Litzke (Frances Macdormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), two meat-market gym employees who mistake the files for CIA dirty laundry and seek to blackmail Cox for financial gain. Litzke, another seasoned internet dater, dreams of using the funds to purchase surgical remedies for her middle-agedness, which will in turn cure her other more acute disease, middle-aged singleness. However, the dimwitted pair seem less motivated by grift than by the sympathetic desire to stave off boredom (after all, that’s what we are doing by watching them). Their naïveté allows them to propel with remarkable speed toward their punishments.

Unfortunately, the temporary alleviation of boredom is all that Burn After Reading manages to do, and honestly, the Coen brothers could meet this cinematic benchmark in their sleep. That’s the rub – anyone attending a Coen brothers film already knows or is at least biased to the popularly held theory, certified by the Academy, that the pair are masters of their craft. It becomes difficult, then, to follow them into a comedic world in which human characters generally are silly, horny idiots (however realistic this may in fact be), rendered two-dimensionally for the sake of a few laughs. Burn After Reading feels like we are watching Good Luck Chuck a film by the Coen brothers.

Ironically, the film’s central problem is brought to the forefront of the viewer’s experience by the amazing cast that’s been assembled. We go to see movies with George Clooney and Frances McDormand because they, too, are the best at what they do. They are almost inadvertently multi-dimensional, so while their presence in the film adds significantly to its entertainment value, it is occasionally painful to watch them move through a caper plot that requires them to underutilized their gifts.

I read somewhere that the only direction the Coen brothers offered Brad Pitt was: “Your character believes that things happen for a reason.” While this is hilarious in itself if true, and likely provided the masterminds a hearty malevolent laughing fit in private, such direction does not translate to comedy gold on screen. Really, it is too late in the game to simply frost Brad Pitt’s hair and expect automatic laughs or endearment, or grant Clooney an opportunity to complete his “idiot trilogy” by playing, here’s an interesting twist, a charming lothario. These major stars signify too much already – rather than dissect or subvert what they mean to us, as Quentin Tarantino succeeds in doing with his cast in Pulp Fiction, or directing them to embody challenging roles that serve a purpose to the plot, as they did with their No Country cast. It feels like the directors have asked each member of their cast to, “you know, just be yourself, sort of,” and to sleepwalk along with them. This may explain why most of the performances are sometimes funny, mostly flat, while conversely, this effect works in favor of the actor with arguably the best chops, John Malkovich, who reaffirms that he is more interesting and humorous sitting silently in a chair than the most crafted witticism a scriptwriter can dream up.

Though we recognize the quirky characters, deliberate incongruities, and effective use of shock value humor as the traits of a typical Coen brothers comedy, these tropes seem tired after No Country – admittedly a different kind of film, but one in which the filmmakers appeared to seriously push themselves to grow, even when they had nothing to prove to most of their fan base. It’s not that Burn After Reading is bad – on the contrary, it’s quite enjoyable and a pleasant diversion worth the price of admission. But for those who have followed the Coen brothers’s career closely, this will feel like their most perfectly mediocre comedic foray, easily better than Intolerable Cruelty, nowhere near The Big Lebowski. And despite the detailed, signature craftsmanship in cinematography and pacing we already know they are capable of, it doesn’t settle well to see them accept goodness from themselves when they so recently have achieved greatness.