Post Millennial Malaise 23: Burn After Reading

In Which Nothing is Learned

The Coen Brothers are arguably the most critically lauded filmmakers of the last forty years. Their decades spanning career includes films of all genre and tones, features a wide variety of movie stars, and have been lodged into the pop culture conscience in the way few artists dream. They are the envy of all directors for their obvious success. However there’s a bit of an odd weight that hangs around the necks of the cinematic duo. Despite the laurels and critical plaudits many, many times their new movies are met with arched eyebrows and befuddlement.

This isn’t always the case, their three biggest Oscar players (Fargo, No Country For Old Men, and True Grit) were immediately accepted as great, but most of their other work, especially their comedies, are greeted with a remove. A perplexity that only lessens through the passage of time. While baked in to the cult of something like The Big Lebowski, it’s easy to forget that many of their movies are frequently rejected upon release before being reaccepted in the pop culture psyche.

Burn After Reading wasn’t dismissed out of hand, it’s one of their highest grossing movies, but when it was unleashed to the world in the fall of 2008 there was hesitation in the praise and acceptance. Some saw it as an all too slight comedy after the grandiose masterwork of No Country, some were put off by it’s overly harsh treatment of the world and the characters who inhabit it. That the Coens’ were cynical gods pushing about pieces on a board for their amusement with little regard to how an audience might invest.

The thing about this critiques is they aren’t wrong in any demonstrable way. This is a defiantly smaller movie, and a cynical one, and a film that does not care what you think. What matters is how one reacts to those elements, are if those good facets or detrimental qualities? In the moment many found these decisions by the brothers to be frustrating and/or alienating. However as the years have wiled by Burn After Reading’s nastiness, irony, and small stature have only enhanced it’s reputation. No other film from the Bush era truly captured the petty stupidity of life without overtly referencing current events. Burn has aged like a fine ironic wine, as political discourse degrades so does the film’s cache increase.

The knotty (and indeed naughty) plot of the films follows the exploits of a bunch of yahoos in the DC area. Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is self aggrandizing intelligence official who quits to write his memoir. Cox’s Katie wife (Tilda Swinton) takes this opportunity to divorce him and continue her affair with Harry (George Clooney). Katie also swipes some of Osbourne’s personal files and subsequently loses them at a local gym, where self involved trainers Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) happen upon it and decide to blackmail the former CIA agent. From their unwinds a tale of thudding idiocy that gets more people dead and in trouble than one would expect.

The main thrust of Burn appears to be how arrogance and idiocy is an abundant resource in American life, and it permeates at all levels in all fields. That the silly machinations of personal trainer are not so different from the wheels of government. That people’s lives can be incinerated for the dopiest of reasons. Again this is quite the bleak world view from the Coens, but in a political environment of willful ignorance and inability to admit personal fault it makes total sense. Everyone is out for their own gain, and all disastrous outcomes will be swept away to move forward without considering the consequence.

Yes the comedy is pitch black, but it is also aggressively funny. The Coens’ are masters of tone control (their answer to the question of what directing is) and here they demonstrate their withering humor in the arch form of a thriller movie. From a distance, and with a total lack of context, one might be able to mistake Burn After Reading as real espionage flick. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is handsome and austere. Highlighting reflections and glances that the characters make. Carter Burwell’s thunderous score brings to mind the bombastic spy plots of the 60’s and 70’s, and in this rigorous form we are gifted such absurdities as Coming up Daisy and the dildo chair. The structure of the film is a joke in and of itself, what we see looks like the real thing, but is in fact a nonsensical facsimile.

That form is seen the movie itself. The CD of info that Linda and Chad stumble upon looks like something important before being unveiled as something totally ridiculous. The secret project Harry is working on is cloaked in shadows and intrigue, only to be revealed as a rocking dildo chair. What is important turns out to be a lot of hot gas, but that’s still a substance that is flammable. The fact that Chad is mercilessly killed in this film, through misunderstanding, points to how narcissism is dangerous in many ways. Chad and Harry are kind of silly on their face, but their convergence as characters is deadly serious.

All this tricky tonal balancing is ably handled by a cast of actors that know exactly how to approach this material. McDormand’s understandable, but not reasonable, fear of aging. Malkovich’s exalted preening. Clooney’s gung-ho horniness. And of course Pitt’s absolutely delightful dumb as rocks fitness trainer. Pitt’s performance is a standout because it’s one of the few straight comedic turns from the king of handsome. His noted tics as an actor serve him incredibly well with this material. Overly expressive features, oral fixation, and a tendency to define a performance with certain vocal affectations all come together make a character that produces a laugh whenever he’s on screen. One of the reasons Chad’s death hits so hard is because we won’t get a joke delivering device for the rest of the film.

Which still leads into what the Coens want to accomplish. They love denying the audience obvious pleasures, and the twist of Pitt’s death is just one in a series of rug pulls both dramatic and comedic in the film. All in the service of a story that ultimately means nothing. People died, the government was threatened, and personal lives were torn asunder. In the end it amounts to something less than a hill of beans. When J. K. Simmons as a CIA official asks what was learned at the end of the film the only answer is, “I don’t fucking know. I guess we learned not to do it again.” Now such thesis is drenched in irony, the lesson is that this will always happen, and keep happening, because that’s the way America works.

Odds and Ends

  • Though each and every one of the actors turn in good work, Swinton does feel like she got the short end of the character dynamic polygon here.
  • Though Swinton had her hair made up to reflect the character of Edna from The Simpsons.
  • Interestingly that Swinton and Clooney show up again together here in what is basically a parody of Michael Clayton.
  • Fake movie Coming Up Daisy is directed by long time friend of the Coen brothers Sam Raimi.
  • Fake movie Coming Up Daisy is based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy.
  • Also a poster at theater is promoting a flick called Hail Caesar. 

Next Week: we don’t know where we are going with Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.