Pressed Against the Looking Glass: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading arrived in theaters this month with tremendous skepticism. Could Joel and Ethan Coen deliver another film to match the success of their 2007 Best Picture adaptation, No Country for Old Men? One review immediately suggested that the writing and directing team made their first mistake by reverting back to their “default” genre: comedy.

The Coen brothers didn’t fail audiences with reversion to a comfortable genre. They’re trademark fashioning of humorously idiosyncratic worlds have often proved successful. Were critics going to suggest that, because of the strength of No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers should basically make the same movie again? That is… until of course, getting backlash from critics that they’re being redundant?

Burn After Reading was actually written during the time that the Coen brothers were penning the script to No Country for Old Men. This is their first original screen play since their 1990 drama, Miller’s Crossing.

More specifically, the Coen brothers return to write and direct a black comedy. And it’s always been a suitable genre, considering their choice of subjects – the persistent theme of Karma’s watchful eye. Although, comedies or not, it is common in most all of their films. Burn After Reading is like a funny take on Stanley Kubrick’s classic noir, The Killing. There is a dramatic shortage of redeeming characters on screen and their fate is pretty clear.

Set in Washington, DC (some of the movie was filmed in New York, and most in Brooklyn Heights, although there are several apparent scenes shot around the Georgetown University neighborhood), the film opens with the demotion of a high-strung, aging CIA Agent (John Malkovich, for whom the part was initially written for) who struggles to resist the fact that basically, in both professional and personal life, he is now irrelevant. His wife (played with elusive emotion by Tilda Swinton), impatient with her husband’s transition to shiftless layabout, weighs divorce. Her lawyer suggests that, while the two should try to reconcile, a picture of his future financial prospects should be a relevant factor in the ultimate decision. Crass as it may sound, marriage seems like a mere necessity for security, considering she’s having an affair with their friend’s husband (George Clooney) who himself is a hobbyist of womanizing.

The bone to pick about the movie is really execution. The initial unraveling of the tale begins with what feels like disconnected vignettes that, for a little too long, fail to make sense in their connection to an overall narrative that centers around these vile, upper class narcissists.

Elsewhere, a dim-witted, self-conscious fitness gym employee (played by Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand) who is being consulted by a doctor about various nip-and-tuck procedures to hide some of her aging body. It is, she claims, necessary to her job and her ticket out of the Single Life. Denied by her insurance company coverage for cosmetic surgery, her silver lining comes along when her dufus Hardbodies coworker (Brad Pitt, perhaps in his loosest form for a change) thinks a CD left behind at the gym contains valuable top secret information. And after a little digging, they find its owner and so, the overall narrative is clear as the two gym employees concoct a disastrous blackmail scheme. With such a serious beginning to the film, this pair of idiotic, scheming Hardbodies coworkers are just the kind of odd-ball comic relief the audience needs. Their kind of idiocy and assumptions, fueled by unrelenting personal desire, feeds comedies like these (see Guy Ritchies gangster follies, Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch).

But of course, the Coen Brothers, even in comedy, never offer pure cartoon humor. There is violence and there are body counts. And this is no different, and even more so this time around. These handful of characters are eventually confined to a narrower playground, and once they are, their interaction becomes a concentration of self-destruction that barely poses much lasting impact on the rest of the world when all is said and done, which makes things in the end seem even more alienated because, the self-involvement lasts beyond just these characters that seek our attention. The more disturbing feeling, however, springs from a sense that the nihilism is far from fiction.

Burn After Reading is a sharp look at stupidity. Despite some initial poor reviews, Coen brother fans shouldn’t be too disappointed with the results. It is probably not likely to gain the cult following of their earlier comedies like Raising Arizona, O! Brother Where Art Thou? or The Big Lebowski, but it’s probably also not likely to fall into complete obscurity like Intolerable Cruelty.

Closing this review with a nugget of trivia: the contraption that Clooney’s character builds in his basement was inspired by both an invention of a key grip and something out of the Museum of Sex in New York City.


One Response

  1. Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he’s not taking himself too seriously… i could see how this movie would make good use of his, habitual, spastic arm movements

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