Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Burn After Reading - An Exercise in What the Fuckery

Dir. - Coen Brothers

Viewed: From the Balcony

Like an extended exhale after the tightly wound No Country For Old Men, the Coen Bros follow-up Burn After Reading is an off the hip, loose limbed adventure that has every one of it's characters asking "What the fuck?" and might have more than a few audience members and critics asking the same thing. After a quick search it doesn't look like anyone has counted the amount of times "What the fuck?" is muttered, sighed or screamed in the movie, but my low-ball guess would be somewhere around 20 to 30 times. It perfectly describes the attitude of the film (in a "What the fuck, why not?" way) and after you let your defenses down it's a pretty joyous mantra to let yourself be taken over by.

The dour Ronald Bergen mentioned he was hoping Burn After Reading would be a "return to form" by the Coen Bros. This has had me scratching my head ever since he wrote it about a month ago. What would a return to form from the Coen Bros look like? What movie most represents their form? If there is one director out there now (let's pretend Joel and Ethan are two halves of one director) that jumps styles, genres and aesthetics and yet stays completely recognisable -- it's the Coens. Barton Fink is pretty far removed from Raising Arizona just as Hudsucker Proxy is from Miller's Crossing or even The Big Lebowski. And if you think they've become too "commercial" recently, you obviously can't look past having people like George Clooney or Tom Hanks in their movies. Which is amazingly myopic. To think the Coens use a specific actor simply to get more attention is a huge disservice to a team that has consistently made some of the best casting choices resulting in career defining roles for many actors. I don't know why any fan of the Coens would fall under the belief that they're doing anything besides following their own very idiosyncratic whims from one project to the next.

That's not to say there aren't more than a few similarities, imagery, themes that weave these movies together. Anyone with cursory knowledge of the Coens work will recognize the trappings of Burn After Reading is familiar territory. A CD filled with "serious shit" falls into the hands of a couple of winningly dim bulbs who try to use it for their own benefit and end up destroying the lives of everyone they come in contact with. It's another movie that shows the futility of a scheme. It's another chain reaction movie that the Coen brothers do so well where we watch a simple mistake, something so small and relatively meaningless end up triggering something that devastates. The CD doesn't contain anything meaningful -- it's the bag of undies, or like the treasure in O Brother it's the catalyst and nothing more. The real driving force here is one woman's desire. Like Holly Hunter needing a baby in Raising Arizona, Frances McDormand needs her cosmetic surgery and anyone who gets in her way is going to pay an unfortunate price. The power of a strong-willed woman over the men around them is one of the recurring themes and it's all over Burn Without Reading.

No one here comes out unscathed but those who get the worst of it are McDormand's co-workers, the effervescent Brad Pitt playing the dullest tool in the shed and Richard Jenkins who plays her heartbreakingly devout boss at the Hardbodies fitness center where the CD is found, "just sitting there!". George Clooney has the dumb luck of meeting McDormand through a dating website and John Malcovich is the guy behind the "serious shit" on the CD who has to do battle with this "League of Morons". Watching and listening to Malcovich become increasingly unhinged at what's going on around him is one the greatest joys of the movie. He serves up the majority of the "what the fuck"s and they begin with the very first scene where he gets fired/quits his job as the man behind the Balkan desk at the CIA. His wife, played by Tilda Swinton, in full-on ice-queen mode, soon begins divorce proceedings and dowloads the contents of Malcovich's computer so as to get at his money. The League of Moron's soon descend and with each encounter you can feel Macolvich's boiling point getting closer and you know when this guy snaps it's not going to be good.


What's surprising is the last act of the movie when the knot starts tightening there is palpable tension brewing under all the laughs. The movie is another testament not only to the Coens near flawless ability to construct moving scenes but also to their tightrope walking skills when it comes to tone and characterization. Nearly everyone in this film walks the fine line between sympathetic and reprehensible. So it was surprising when I found myself actually caring about some of these people. And when look at their movies, any of them really, they are filled with over-sized characters -- sometimes even caricatures. But they make them work through what feels like simple sheer will. Even here when no one has good intentions or is uncorrupted, you enjoy spending time with them and would even come back for seconds, because we all know a Coen Bros movie improves the second time around. This has to do with the generally great actors they work with but it also has a lot to do with the way the Coens can create that world in which these characters can comfortably exist and shine even at their worst.

Burn After Reading isn't going to move into my or many fans top five Coen Bros list but it is simply ludicrously funny and one of the better movies I've seen this year and it's not nearly as easily disposable as some critics might lead you to believe.

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