Saturday, September 13, 2008

"Burn After Reading": "No biggie," but so what?

It really must be nice to be the Coens. What they've essentially done with "Burn After Reading" is enlisted as many of their A-list buddies as they could wrangle into what is easily one of their most nihilistic flicks - and probably one for devoted Coen fans only (of which I'm surely one.)

It's not that their twisted spy caper has no plot. It does, filled with the usual kind of Coen brothers' characters who are not terribly bright and almost always out to serve nothing but their own interest. As with "No Country for Old Men" and all their best flicks (which this isn't quite among), they've taken a conventional genre and added enough of their touches to make it a nasty little world that only they could create (even if in this case it's more than a little too close to the surveillance-crazy one we live in now.)

But this flick otherwise couldn't possibly be much different than the Coens' Oscar-winning triumph, and that's certainly something that should be celebrated. Despite its endearingly despicable characters, this is a screwball comedy until it comes to its inevitably bloody end, so the bottom line question is is it funny?

Well, after a slow start, the answer is very often yes, and thanks much more to Brad Pitt than I would have guessed. Judging from the trailers only, I expected to find his personal trainer to simply be annoying, but he's one of those Coen idiots that the brothers love to create, and Pitt jumps into it with gusto and steals just about every scene he's in. He doesn't quite go, as Robert Downey Jr. put it in "Tropic Thunder," "full retard," but it's pretty darn close and just very funny, especially when he's confronted with John Malkovich's CIA agent Ozzie Cox, who's as crazy as Pitt's Chad is stupid.

And what heart there is in all this darkness comes from Frances McDormand's obsession with plastic surgery in her quest for love and Richard Jenkins as the boss who loves her though she completely fails to notice. Without telling you any more to spoil this odd little flick, it may be the theft of intelligence from Malkovich's ousted spook that offers the semblance of a plot, but it's the three employees of the Hardbodies gym - Pitt, McDormand and Jenkins - that give the violence we all know is coming as much resonance as would be possible in such a wacky movie. (Jenkins, by the way, is just someone I always like to see, so I've just added last year's "The Visitor" to my Netflix queue to make up for overlooking that flick he toplined.)

In the end, it all really adds up to "no biggie," as JK Simmons's sardonic CIA supervisor says in wrapping it all up, but so what? It's not transcendent in the least and not quite the commentary on our current state of affairs that the Coens may have intended, but as a 90-minute lark with a dark wink, I'll take it and enjoy it. And they can always get "Serious" again next year with a flick about judaism and morality starring Richard Kind, so just take this little side trip while you can.


Bob said...

I enjoyed it too, but like you I didn't find it to be great. And we're definitely in agreement about it getting off to a slow start.
I loved Pitt, Rasche, and Simmons, and all of the Coens digs at Seattle were cracking me up. I just posted my review over at my place if you want to give it a look.

nateshorb said...

As someone who has left the majority of the Coens' work unexplored, this mixed reviews are leaving my hesitant to go out and see it.

But, great choice in The Visitor. I really loved it.

Reel Fanatic said...

I'll definitely stop by and give it a look, Bob ... And if you're not a Coen fan already, Nate, I think you're right to stay away from this one, Nate, because it's just the definition of an acquired taste

Handsome B. Wonderful said...

I was extremely disappointed and I have high standards for the Coen Brothers (after Fargo, The Big L, and Oh Brother). And being a hard core fan I expect a lot from them.

First of all I was highly annoyed that they played the best parts in the previews thinking it would be one type of film. But then when I watched it I saw a totally different film and not for the better.

Besides Brad Pitt I didn't find it funny much at all and I expected a funny movie from the previews. Not a deadly serious film with splatters of attempts at comedy thrown in. Sure there were points but nothing like they advertised it to be.

The best part though for me was the Mormon joke (being a former Mormon).

Being disappointed in No Country and no this film, I getting a bit impatient with the brothers.

Handsome B. Wonderful said...

Oops, I meant to say "now this film" instead of "no this film."

Reel Fanatic said...

I have extremely high standards from too, Mr. Wonderful, but I guess I just found more to like in this one than you did ... And I thought "No Country for Old Men" was a nearly flawlessly entertaining flick too, and among one of their best, so I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree about that one too

kat said...

I enjoyed this one tremendously and actually think it worked quite well as satire. JK Simmon's "summation" at the end had me absolutely cracking up. Despite being a Coen Brothers fan, I have to say that "No Country For Old Men" left me cold. And I had a slight bit of trepidation that the Clooney/Pitt combo might be too much in the vein of "Ocean's 11" but I can honestly say that I was just delighted all the way through.

Chalupa said...

I thought Burn After Reading was pretty hilarious, but I'm definitely a die-hard Coen fan. This film was just full of Coenisms and themes they've used throughout their other movies. Clooney being a sex-addict and the several bits with the fat, old, rich men were pretty classic.

movie buff said...

Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he's not taking himself too seriously... i could see how this movie would make good use of his, habitual, spastic arm movements

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