>> Burn After Reading (7.5/10)

Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading certainly feels like a film from the Coen Brothers.  With its oddball characters, meticulous cinematography, and stirring Carter Burwell score, there’s little to complain about if you’re seeking the singular experience of a Joel and Ethan Coen comedy.  However, if you’re seeking a comedy that provides consistent laughs or greater emotional truths at its core, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Burn After Reading is more of a curio than a comedy.

The truth about the Coens as a creative force, especially when it comes to comedy, is that they seem to make projects that amuse themselves first and foremost, audience be damned.  (The only time it’s apparent that they weren’t doing that is Intolerable Cruelty, which is a fine mainstream piece of screwball fluff, but doesn’t fit into the Coen “universe” at all.)  Even with an ill-received film like The Ladykillers, I still get the impression that they found it funny, even if audiences didn’t.  The gags are abstract and conecptual; the characters walk a fine line between truth and cartoon and speak in a way that reflects the trademark Coen fascination (obsession?) with dialgoue and the rhythm of words.

I have no doubt that Joel and Ethan Coen found Burn after Reading hilarious, but the reality is that the movie lacks a character to serve as an audience entry point into their quirky story.  The casting tries to make up for that–it’s easy to be interested in watching any one member of this celebrity ensemble at work, let alone all of them together in one movie–but just because I’m watching Frances McDormand because I like her as an actress, isn’t the same thing as sharing something with her character that allows me to become fully absorbed into the story.

McDormand is Linda Litzke, a lonely, body-obsessed employee at a Hardbodies gym, who wants to use a disc found on a locker room floor containing the memoirs and financial info of former government agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) as leverage to pay for extensive plastic surgery.  George Clooney is over-sexed federal marshall Harry Pfarrer, who is sleeping with Cox’s ice queen wife (Tilda Swinton), and accidentally ends up dating Litzke as well when Litzke mistakes him for a blind date at a public park and he plays along.  The plot threads weave together and run on with an almost non-existent payoff, the very nature of the non-payoff being all part of what the Coens themselves consider funny.

Are they saying something about our new post-9/11 paranoia?  Have we moved away from the Cold War only to find that we are now suspicious of everything government-related, that every action must have some greater conspiratorial meaning?  I think the subtext is here, and certainly that argument could be made.  It’s just a shame they wasted those thoughts on a movie so mild.

There’s a reason people don’t consider The Ladykillers and The Hudsucker Proxy with the same reverance as The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona, and it all comes down to the characters.  You can root for The Dude or H.I. McDunnough as heroes, there are elements of their personality that are noble, and parts of their struggle that are easy to relate to, despite ridiculous circumstances.  Tom Hanks in Ladykillers is a sniveling schemer; Tim Robbins in Hudsucker is a simpleton and a patsy.

Here, in Burn After Reading, Linda Litzke is shallow and idiotic.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy her character, but it holds back the film, keeping it in the category of lesser Coen films, which leads me to my next point, that even the lesser films of the Coen Brothers are worth watching.  They’re artists.  They challenge me as an audience member, and they tell interesting stories.  They’re visionary film craftsmen and most likely always will be, and as long as they are, I’ll be there, watching.  While Burn After Reading might be a slight disappointment as a Coen Brothers film, it’s still something I’ll re-visit, and certainly a more worthwhile cinematic endeavor than most of the films that have seen release this year.

7.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

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1 Comment

  1. My main issue w/ BURN was the same as yours, but a different character. What I disliked in this film in retrospect wasn’t the shallowness of Frances McDormand, because her quirkiness is appealling just like Robbins in HUDSUCKER, it was Malkovich’s pure disdain for everyone in the film. I think for the first time that I can recall the Coens wrote in a character that belongs in one of their serious films into one of their comedies.
    I adjusted to the nuances of watching a serious presentation to an otherwise goofy film (which added to my enjoyment when I did), but I couldn’t adjust to watching Malkovich being Malkovich in a Coen Bros. comedy.


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