REVIEW: Burn After Reading [2008]

“His optometrist has a sense of humor”

Last year’s No Country for Old Men showed the world that the Coen Brothers could make a great film. After a pair of not-so-good flicks, no one really cared about them, two creative geniuses that crafted some of cinema’s best black comedies of the 80s and 90s. Then came the Oscar winner, showing an attention to detail and precision pacing worthy of the accolades if not, in my opinion, the best film of the year. But it was so serious and unlike anything they had ever done; yes it had some very subtle laughs, however, it was a drama from start to finish. So, when the trailers for Burn After Reading hit the airwaves, I wasn’t quite sure what I would get. It looked as though the Coens of yesteryear were truly back, mixing their quirky brand of wit with an underlying plot dealing with crime and blackmail. Did those thoughts come to fruition? You bet they did. This ranks with Miller’s Crossing and Fargo as one of their best dark comedies. The runtime may drag a bit at times, but I think that may actually enhance the humor, feigning suspense and hitting us over the head with laughter.

It’s a very smart script with some really fantastic performances, many of which are somewhat against type for the actor. Richard Jenkins is possibly the most obvious, playing a gym manager with no backbone whatsoever. He exudes fear, curling up into a ball when the slightest inclination of danger rears its head; a definite departure for someone used to playing strong, intelligent men. There is also Brad Pitt as a gym employee and co-mastermind behind the insane blackmail plot that the film revolves around. The filmmakers do nothing to make him look any younger than his actual age, and yet they have him act as though he is a child. Constantly dancing and jumping and being absolutely giddy with excitement, he is a little boy doing rather than thinking. The little things like complaining when he must wear a suit, or his juvenile disappointment when his reward demands go unresolved, or even his contemptuous, pompous laugh when his bike is demeaned—“You think that’s a Schwinn?”—only makes the role funnier because Pitt is almost always the calm collected one in films.

Then there is George Clooney, who actually carries the film, something you wouldn’t think from the trailers. When the credits began and he was first billed, I was a tad confused. I had thought he would be a small role compared to the trio of Pitt, Frances McDormand, and John Malkovich when in fact he is the common factor linking them all. Clooney is a mess of nerves, constantly paranoid, a security Marshall in the treasury department who seemingly does no work. If the CIA operatives that we cut to every now and then didn’t mention his job, I would have believed he made it up—the guy just walks around with his gun, (never fired in 20 years on the job … hmmm, that’s not a bit of foreshadowing is it?), has relations with multiple women, and spends his time welding something very intriguing in his basement. Watching him off-kilter and not fully composed is a welcome change of pace in his canon of work, while being par for the course here as no one really has it all together.

It is the slight imbecility of each character that allows the story to push forward. As J.K. Simmons’ CIA Chief constantly agrees with, everyone is confused about what’s going on. These people are all out of their leagues, causing unnecessary trouble, bringing the Russians into the fold, and leaving dead bodies. One of the best lines is when he utters, “well we learned something here, not to do that again … whatever it was we did.” Everything happens due to the random forgetfulness of a divorce lawyer’s secretary. She accidentally leaves a disc at the gym containing the memoirs of her boss’s client’s husband, a former CIA analyst (Malkovich in a nicely dangerous and angry role). The utter stupidity of the morons working at Hardbodies cause a chain reaction that unravels the lies and deceit running rampant through everyone’s sordid and sad lives. They are all self-absorbed in their own pursuits of happiness that everything becomes excellent fodder for intelligent comedy, not needing to rely on physical humor. Although those few instances of it, Malkovich punching Pitt for one, do succeed.

To speak about the multiple intertwining of players would ruin some of the surprises that occur, but let’s just say everyone ends up meeting the others at some point, either face to face or by reputation. A comedy of errors, the lack of smarts for most roles rivals that in Raising Arizona, but the plot here is so much more detailed. It is a story that could have been taken seriously, but because of the insanity of what goes on, the confusion for which everything hinges on, the comedy bent is the only way to go. There are some surprises, Clooney’s invention and of course his encounter with Pitt, but mostly it is the waiting to see how far the farce will go that keeps you in the seat. We as the audience know that it all depends on a disc with unimportant information, so the real fun comes from seeing if everyone in the film will realize it as well. David Rasche and Simmons’ brief interludes, (I really love the CIA scenes with the echoing footsteps and stark white walls), are the glue that keeps everything sane. Those two trying to wrap their heads around what is happening may be read into as a commentary on the stupidity of our government, but to me, because they just can’t fathom what is going on around them—not because they don’t know the details, they just can’t comprehend the ultimate goal—it is more a comment on how stupid civilians are. Trying to grab cash anyway they can, people will do anything, especially things without any sound judgment at all.

Burn After Reading 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Brad Pitt stars in Joel and Ethan Coen’s dark spy-comedy BURN AFTER READING, a Focus Features release. Photo: Macall Polay
[2] George Clooney (left) and Frances McDormand (right) star in Joel and Ethan Coen’s dark spy-comedy BURN AFTER READING, a Focus Features release. Photo: Macall Polay


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