Sunday, September 28, 2008

In Theaters: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading poster courtesy
One upside to the overall darkness of current popular entertainment is that it’s apparently enabling the rebirth of that often-moribund genre, the dark comedy. Gallows humor is cropping up in all sorts of places, and after the serious nihilism of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the Coen Bros. have decided to cleanse the palate with a more playful approach to a bleak cosmos. Perhaps just about anything they did after that apotheosis of despair would be viewed as a lesser accomplishment, and BURN AFTER READING is being generally received as “minor” Coen, but once again I feel the need to buck consensus and say that this is actually really really good. It’s very well crafted and thoughtful while appearing to be haphazard and chaotic, and attains the right level of jaunty amorality necessary for us to want to follow the story without feeling too bad for anyone involved.

t’s hard to summarize this film’s story, so perhaps I should just list the players involved. John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a low-level CIA operative who is fired for alcoholism, and decides to write a bitter, hate-filled memoir. His bitter, hate-filled wife Katie, played by Tilda Swinton, is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), himself a federal agent married to a children’s book author (Elizabeth Marvel). In the midst of this, there is Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who works at a fitness center and wants to have a series of cosmetic surgery procedures to combat the inevitable aging process (despite being still pretty attractive by any objective standard.) Her friend Chad (Brad Pitt) comes across a CD containing what look like top security secrets, belonging to Osborne. They call him asking for a “good samaritan” reward, but poor communication skills ensure that Osborne levels threats at them, and Chad and Linda decide to get the money by selling the information.

Nothing goes very well at or after this point, and the proceedings could almost be classified as grim farce. What’s surprising is the level of attention paid to the characters, who all have deep internal contradictions which compel them to make bad decisions. Linda’s external vulnerability and insecurity masks a relentless drive to make her dream of surgical self-improvement come true, but she’s not wholly a bad person. Harry is a lothario, self-aggrandizing, cocky, but he’s also paranoid with several hang-ups. We sympathize a bit with Osborne Cox at the start, but he’s also kind of a jerk. And yet, when he goes into attack dog mode in response to what Linda and Chad are doing, he becomes almost admirable in his drive and determination. Everybody’s got massive problems, and is able to elicit laughter and pathos.

This poses a potential dilemma. A dark comedy depends on awful things happening to people, and so cannot work if we feel too badly for them. A basic level of emotional detachment is required, otherwise it’s just depressing. At the same time the Coens don’t want to treat these people as caricatures. What they manage to do, I think, is make everyone sufficiently amoral and pit them against each other in such a way that we’re just interested in seeing if anyone wins, or if winning is even possible. A frenzied paranoia runs through the entire picture, turning low stakes into high ones partly because of the incompetence of most of the people involved.

As you might imagine, a movie like this depends on its actors, and the Coens have never had much trouble finding talent. Each performance, it seems, is worth singling out for something. George Clooney brilliantly matches his playboy image with a nervous aggression that keeps slipping out on the sides. Frances McDormand is sweet and driven and sympathetic even when she’s in the wrong, while Brad Pitt manages to be funnier than you could ever expect. Malkovich gives Osborne Cox an admirable insanity that keeps on building, and Tilda Swinton’s deadpan bitchiness balances both him and Clooney out extremely well. As an unnamed CIA agent, J.K. Simmons almost manages to steal the entire picture; instead he makes off with about half, I’d say.

The plot of this one is rambling, to be sure, and almost inconsequential. This, coupled with a slow start, has apparently turned off many people, but I never for a moment believed that we were getting anything other than a character-driven farce without a particularly rigorous structure. And really, it doesn’t need one; this is a picture dependent on energy rather than elegance, and what it lacks in pacing it makes up for in unpredictability.

If you are the sort of person that insists a movie have sympathetic characters, BURN AFTER READING is probably not a film for you. It’s a grimly hilarious picture which showcases some great performances. It’s not quite as much a great dark comedy as IN BRUGES earlier this year, even though they’re getting about the same grade; nonetheless, if this is minor Coen, then I would suggests our standards have been raised too high.

Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Grade: A-

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