Burn After Reading review by Rosie

Burn After Reading

The Coen Brothers are back! I guess. I mean, it says they are. Right there on the poster: “A Film by Joel and Ethan Coen”. So … can’t argue with that. And yet, for some reason, I can’t quite shake the feeling that it’s more of a “technical back” than an “actual back”. Like, remember when David Lee Roth reunited with Van Halen last year for a reunion tour, but, eh … it seemed like they were kind of just going through the motions? Even the most die-hard Van Halen fans knew somewhere in their hearts that the band was, at best, just “technically back”. The kind of return that exists almost entirely in semantics, but that in reality has a much emptier significance to it. As opposed to being “actually back” like, for instance, when John Travolta reemerged from exile in Pulp Fiction and even though it wasn’t particularly hyped as his comeback, everyone recognized pretty quickly after seeing it that he was actually back.

And I know this is sort of a different situation because the Coen brothers have never actually gone away, in the sense of becoming irrelevant. But coming off a near Academy Awards, sweep, including Best Picture and Best Director honors for their 2007 masterpiece No Country for Old Men , the bar had been raised for expectations of their encore. So when the buzz started to grow that “the Coen brothers are back”, I guess I just naturally started letting myself believe that “the Coen brothers are back!”, without thinking that maybe it just meant “the Coen brothers are (for all legal intents and purposes) back.” The weird thing is, I basically liked this movie. It was exactly everything I expected it to be, which was both the satisfaction and mild disappointment of it.

The film ostensibly revolves around the story of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and her friend Chad (Brad Pitt) who, after finding a mysterious CD of what appears to be “some kind of secret CIA shit” decide to try to throw themselves headlong into the world of international espionage and sell it to the highest bidder. As they feel their way through the process of first-time blackmailing, their stories become intertwined with the equally absurd problems of an alcoholic former mid-level CIA analyst (John Malkovich), a sexaholic mid-level Treasury agent (George Clooney), and the women only sort of pretending to love them anymore (Tilda Swinton and Elizabeth Marvel). I guess there are probably some more nuances to their interactions than I’ll do justice here, but the basic idea is that once their paths have all crossed, they pretty much just spend the next ninety minutes running willy-nilly around Washington D.C. and bumping into each other at every other turn as if it were a town of 150 people.

For what at first appears to be a pseudo-political black comedy, Burn After Reading has a surprising slice-of-life, Americana story structure to it. The audience is quite literally dropped into the characters’ lives, which we find already rapidly unfolding. With no back story or formal introductions, we are simply allowed to peek in on their world for an hour and a half and then are pulled right back out again just as quickly, with no real resolutions and the distinct sense that life there is continuing on at the same pace without us. It’s kind of like listening to A Prairie Home Companion, if Lake Wobegone were ever to be flooded with crystal meth and sex shops. (Which, I guess, could have been the inspiration since the Coen brothers are from Minnesota.).

It’s true that there are some deceptive and very Coenesquely woven layers to the story, including how the superficiality of the characters (Chad’s obsession with brand names, Linda’s obsession with plastic surgery, Harry’s obsession with sex and the quality of material in people’s homes, etc.) is mirrored by the superficiality of the film itself (a quality I’ll elaborate on more in a moment), or how perfectly complimentary the characters are to each other in their strengths and weaknesses in just about every possible combination they can be paired in (i.e., Harry is the total opposite of his wife, who is the total opposite of his lover, who is the total opposite of her own husband, who is the total opposite of Harry, etc. – and even if you mix and match they are all almost perfectly complimentary to another character in some way, depending on the qualities you consider). But, still, by the time the film ended a brisk 96 minutes after it began, I couldn’t shake the distinct impression that there were no more than two scenes in the whole thing that I hadn’t already seen in the two minute trailer – and definitely not more than two really good laughs.

Before I go too much further, I should also add that any letdowns I may have had about this movie are only the result of the Coen brothers having set the bar so high for themselves. Were this the debut of some unknown director or Sundance darling, I’d probably be hailing it right now as some kind of new Wes-Anderson-for-degenerate-intellectuals genre (which, to me, would be a highest compliment). With that said, let me try to put the biggest problem I did have with it into some kind of perspective.

The obvious question is: how is it that I could recognize (or at least, project on to the film my own conceptions of) all the subtext going on, on one hand and still label it as “superficial” and mildly disappointing, on the other? Because it’s my review, mouthy – that’s why. But if you want to get all righteous about yourself instead of just taking my word as gospel like the popular kids would, I would say that despite any layers, there wasn’t really anything substantive at all about the actual experience of seeing this movie. It never so much felt like something I was watching, but more like something I just happened to be looking at. It had all the right parts of a great Coen brothers movie but in the same way that seeing a really good cover band, or a really detailed color-by-numbers version of a famous painting, would have all the right parts, too. Analogizing further: seeing this just after No Country for Old Men was kind of like leaving the foot of the Statue of Liberty in New York and then flying directly to see the one in Vegas. On paper, they may both be built to the same specifications, but one is infinitely more impressive to see while the other is just kind of an amusing curiosity. That doesn’t mean it’s not still worth seeing if you’re there, just that I wouldn’t make it your only reason for going.

7 out of 10 Jackasses
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