Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Burn After Reading"

It's not that I'm a Coen Brothers apologist. I don't grade their stuff on a curve, or try to put a positive spin on aspects of their films I may perceive as flaws, I just genuinely can't help digging everything they do. It''s not due to blind idolatry -- I'll be willing to admit they've made a sub-par movie when it happens -- but to sincere reveling in the bones they throw our way every year or two. Even the biggest fans of the Coens seem to think they made a misstep or two, either with "The Ladykillers," "Intolerable Cruelty," "The Man Who Wasn't There" or "The Hudsucker Proxy." Not me. I think even their worst movie (unquestionably, "The Ladykillers") is great, with only two or three minor qualms from me. I give this extended buildup just to make clear that, when it comes to "Burn After Reading," the odds were stacked going in, and I might not be your man to give an adequately critical, even-keel assessment.

That said, I fucking loved every minute of it. The chief criticism of "Burn After Reading" -- and it will be criticized, every Coen comedy seems to divide critics -- will be that it's "insubstantial," but that's largely the point. The big joke of the film is that no one quite knows what's going on, and nothing amounts to anything; hell, the title itself is an acknowledgement that this is all a disposable romp to forget as soon as you've seen it -- except it isn't. For all its silly coincidences, bouts of confusion, and a twisting set of narratives that seems to knowingly implode, there's something about the film that sticks to your ribs. We're not meant to take any of it seriously, and it's one of the Coens' more blatant examples of laughing at the characters as opposed to with them, but it's all so funny, ridiculous, impeccably crafted and based in real, relevant themes, you can't help getting caught up in it all. It can (and probably should) all be read as a parable of the incompetency of our times, and the increasingly clueless-yet-massively-destructive nature of our goverment, but it could just as easily be enjoyed as a vicious, enjoyable lark.

Even though they're just pawns in the Coens' dark, nasty chess game, the all-star cast here makes you believe in their respective characters as real, three-dimensional people, even though no attempt is given to make them three-dimensional. It's an ensemble through and through, with no real lead. Tilda Swinton -- basically reprising her role from "The Chronicles of Narnia" -- doesn't have quite as much to do as everyone else, but she lends her character a perfect iciness that pays off in one of the funniest jokes of the movie (which, like much of the payoffs, is carefully built up and alluded to very slyly throughout). Frances McDormand's plastic-surgery-obsessed Linda Litzke is somehow somewhat sympathetic, even though she's also arguably the most destructive presence in the film; she's the antithesis of Marge Gunderson, and a rare broad comedic turn for McDormand. John Malkovich's wildly unpleasant Osborne Cox is a joy to watch as he grows irrationally irate in half a second, though he has plenty of reasons to. The Clooney is remarkably funny as sex-addicted, ball-of-nerves Harry whose obsession with post-sex jogging and the kind of floors people have is equivalent to Miles Massey's teeth vanity in "Intolerable." Lastly, Brad Pitt's bubble-headed Chad Feldheimer is an idiot, sure, but he's also an enormously likable, recognizable idiot, and possibly the most fun we've ever seen Pitt have in a role.

Some have accused the Coens of repeating themselves before, but this doesn't really feel like anything they've done before -- if pressed, I'd say there are elements of "The Ladykillers," "The Big Lebowski" and "Blood Simple" merged together, but no one whole comes to mind. Part of the genius of the film is that the events are so ridiculous and funny, yet the Coens choose to frame it all as deadly serious thriller (highlighted by Carter Burwell's hilariously tongue-in-cheek score), to help underline the absurdity even further. In a few brilliant scenes, J.K. Simmons -- best known as Juno's dad -- and David Rasche play all-seeing C.I.A. agents who occasionally check in on our characters' actions. They're the only people in the film that ever have the full story, and like us, they can't quite comprehend the increasingly moronic, seemingly nonsensical actions of all involved. They wrap up the story for us (we don't end up actually seeing how everything concludes -- oh, those Coens!), strategically "satisfying" yet somehow not, but it's a truly perfect ending, one that had me still chuckling on my way out of the theater. For those wondering if this was going to be another "Lebowski" or another "Ladykillers" -- well, I love them both -- but I have a feeling "Burn" will be entering the pantheon of Coen movies that a few years from now, everyone agrees how much they love.


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