Film Review: Burn After Reading

The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading is brought to you by Google Earth.  Or so it would seem, since the film begins and ends with zooms that go cosmic-to-quantum and back.  This cliché of new-Bourne cinema provides a clue as to the Coens’ game (as does the computer-age pun in the title).  And it is a game, masterminded by the bros who work best when their snide pranksterism isn’t tainted — or overridden completely — by attempts at faux-grandeur.

Everyone in this film is under someone’s, or something’s, watchful eye.  Thanks to matchmaking websites and GPS, everyone’s in the spy business.  The dialogue is littered with references to “privacy” and “security”, as if there were such a thing.  It’s like the worst ramifications of the Patriot Act gone wild, only since we’re digital, citizens can log on to the web and be more in the know than the government.  Far-fetched perhaps, but a welcome absurdist extreme after No Country for Old Men, which for all its touted formal elegance and topical seriousness was a ponderous bore.  This time, the Coens thankfully go more the way of The Dude, opting for incredulous laughter and cathartic mockery.

It all starts with Osborne Cox — played by a marvelously self-parodic John Malkovich — a C.I.A. analyst who gets laid off and embarks on another staple of cultural cliché:  the memoir.  He burns his writings onto a disc, which somehow ends up in the hands of two airheads — Linda Litzke  (Frances McDormand with all the tics and none of the intelligence of Marge Gunderson) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt, whose pantomiming might be the funniest thing in the film).  That they work in a gym is no coincidence.  The immaculate sheen and the dim-witted false positivism of cookie-cutter health clubs provide the perfect satiric contrast against the overdramatic gravity of espionage-flick conventions.

The hilarity really takes off when they become amateur racketeers.  From there, Burn After Reading reveals itself as a comedy of errors with the American cultural landscape as its stage.  In addition to ubiquitous surveillance, The Coens’ take stabs at image-consciousness (Litzke attempts extortion simply to get money for cosmetic surgery, which she’s convinced is the only thing that will make her life meaningful again); the illusion of security (a character armed only with a dull shovel breaks into a house with relative ease and enlists the help of his tech-savvy friend to procure supposedly secure information); anti-intellectualism (it would be generous to describe Litzke’s knowledge of international politics as a little out-dated); and paranoia (the uproarious penultimate scene).  There’s also an enjoyable but dispensable sub-plot involving a couple of extramarital affairs – both involving George Clooney, who like Pitt plays off his sexiest-man-alive charm to comedic effect.

And what would a Coen Brothers film be without some bloodshed?  There are two expertly staged and genuinely shocking moments of violence (one an homage to David Lynch).  Both resonate not only due to their unexpectedness, but also their deliberate incongruence with the film’s overarching frivolous tone.  In Fargo, that juxtaposition resulted in a transparently calculated oil-and-water mix made all the worse by the Coens’ self-congratulatory nose-thumbing.  In No Country, the intended shock of cold-blooded murder was muted by overly conscious artfulness.  Ironically, but not surprisingly, it’s in overt comedies that the Coens best deliver the sucker-punch of violence with genuine impact.  And due to the film’s absurdist slant, the moral repugnance of the perpetrators, which might otherwise overwhelm the film’s laughs, only adds a layer of comedic nuance.

Burn After Reading might not prove the most consequential entry in the Coens’ oeuvre.  But it’s by far their most purely enjoyable since The Big Lebowski, and it shows what the brothers can achieve when they don’t take themselves too seriously.  It makes light of the topical without any need for the profound, a fact made clear by the following exchange in the final scene:

“What did we learn?”

“Uh…”

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2 comments so far

  1. Noah on

    I guess I have to see it now

  2. Amanda on

    Sitting next to you in the movie theater was just as fun as the movie. Seeing your usually scrunched, pained brow smooth was a pleasure — not to mention, for once, hearing our laughter in unison.


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