Monday, January 26, 2009

Burn After Reading

After the Cohen Brothers’ unbelievable (and undeserved, IMHO) Oscar success last year, they’re in a pretty good position.  They already had the clout and respect to make any movie they wanted, and with No Country for Old Men winning all those awards, they could also have any star they wanted.  They basically said, “Let’s write all the things we’ve wanted to write for years, and make up our dream parts for our dream actors, and the mash them all together.”  They did just that, and out of the primordial ooze we have Burn After Reading.  If it feels thrown together and random, that’s because it is.

I’ll be honest; I think the Cohen Brothers are very overrated.  That comment will most likely make indie snobs everywhere want to get out their pitchforks and torches, but it’s true.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? was great, but a bit of an odd duck in their filmography, I found.  The rest of their movies are so much darker that they almost seem like they were made by different people.  They were total pricks for their Best Picture acceptance speech last year, but I will say that no one does dark comedy quite as well as the Cohens.  No Country for Old Men contained almost no comedy at all, just darkness, while Burn After Reading is pretty much the opposite.

It also contains some good performances, Brad Pitt and George Clooney in particular.  Pitt plays Chad, a personal trainer at a local gym.  Chad is a dork.  He and his buddy Linda (Frances McDormand in a good but non-challenging turn) find some “files” on a CD-RW at the gym, belonging to Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), former mid-level CIA analyst who is writing his memoirs.  His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), unsatisfied in their marriage, is screwing Harry (George Clooney), who in turn starts screwing Linda.  Linda and Chad try blackmailing Osbourne for the “files,” which he thinks are his memoirs.  Also in the mix is Ted (Richard Jenkins), mild-mannered manager of the gym where Chad and Linda work.  Jenkins is sadly underutilized, and his character basically just gets in the way.

Burn After Reading is about the two worlds of the complicated and the simple, and what happens when they collide.  The two worlds seem very different at first glance, but you come to realize that they have in common that they’re both filled with complete idiots.  But the movie is also about fantastically dumb people, and the trouble they get themselves and each other into.  Almost everyone in the movie is looking for something, and very pointedly not finding it.  Linda wants a new body, and thus a new confidence.  Harry wants human connection, and thinks he can only get it through sex.  Osbourne wants to be respected.  Katie wants to be in control of absolutely everything.  Ted just wants to be loved.  Chad wants money.  But all of them are just so incompetent at getting what they want.  It’s like watching a bunch of blind-folded people trying to turn off a lamp.

Ethan and Joel Cohen’s twisted sense of humor kinda alienated me, as it usually does, and the story didn’t really keep me engaged.  There were some definite laugh-out-loud moments, and I appreciated the very snarky and character-driven comedy, but the movie suffered from not really being about anything in particular.  The CIA supervisor said it best at the end of the movie.  “What did we learn, Palmer?  I don’t fuckin’ know.  I guess we learned not to do it again.  I’m fucked if I know what we did, though.”  As a viewer, that sums up my feeling after the film.  I’m clueless as to what lesson I should take away from this, and I have a sneaking suspicion that there wasn’t a lesson at all.

Iconic lines (or exchanges):

Harry: Go around the corner, we’ll do it in the back.

Katie: You’re so coarse.

Harry: Back of the car… not a… rear entry situation.

Osbourne: I have a drinking problem?  Peck, you’re a Mormon!  Compared to you, we ALL have a drinking problem!

Linda: Does he look like he would have a sense of humor?

Chad: Looks like his optometrist has a sense of humor.

22 Rating: 4

Particle Man


Dr. Worm said...

I agree about the CoBros being generally overrated. Aside from O, Brother, I haven't really loved anything they've done. I'm usually just left with a feeling, of "Oh, well, that wasn't bad." (Though I didn't see No Country.)

But given the general esteem in which they're held, I feel like I'm missing something. Can someone fill m in?

Stormy Pinkness said...

With as much star power as this movie had I never felt drawn to see it. It looked like it had some promise but not a ton. I;m posing this question to those who have seen the film, Was it as all over the place as the review made it seem?

Dr. Worm said...

I thought it was followable. There were just a lot of characters/situations, which meant you can't really go super deep into any one.

Particle Man said...

it wasn't so much all over the place as it was lacking direction. the actors did their best at making it interesting to watch, but it didn't know where it was going. like DW said, there were several plot threads, but they weren't unmanageable.

Your Racist Friend said...

I think you guys have missed some key films. Blood Simple is a great film noir. Dr. Worm, you're probably familiar with at least part of it, as Radiohead's Karma Police video was heavily inspired by one of the scenes in the film. I think that No Country For Old Men is also a really good film. Their movies are usually very quotable and funny. Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski are two of my favorite comedies, and Miller's Crossing rivals the Godfather and The Godfather II as a gangster film, AFAIC. Everybody here should rent Miller's Crossing and Raising Arizona if they haven't seen them already.

Particle Man said...

both of those films, neither of which i've seen, were the Cohen Brothers' first two films, i'm noticing. would it be fair to say, YRF, that they peaked at or near the beginning, and then tapered off?

Dr. Worm said...

I don't know ... I've seen both Lebowski and Arizona. They were both good, but that's about as far as I'm willing to go with praise. In other words, I wouldn't give them (or any other CoBros film I've seen (aside from O, Brother) over a 10). And I guess that's my thing. I'm always just sort of mildly pleased with each film of theirs I see; I never have the sense: Whoa, these guys are good!

Wicked Little Critta said...

Since I recently saw this as well, I figure I'll let eager readers know what I thought.

I couldn't tear myself away from it. As weird and circular and startling as the plot was, my eyes were glued to the screen. It wasn't even so much that I was invested in the characters (it's true, there wasn't a lot of depth or likeability) but more like I was experiencing the rubbernecking you get with terrible accidents on the highway.
I think the acting was a huge factor in this, since their character personalities and life situations were almost fascinating.

I agree very much with PM's comment that as an audience member I felt alienated from the movie. Which isn't a good feeling. At points I felt like a peeping Tom.

I do have to say: I loved Brad Pitt in this movie. Loved him. It was a great, humorous performance (possibly because of they types of characters he typically plays) and for me he was the most likeable one.

That's all for now.