Brad Pitt holds a CD in Burn After Reading
by Gary Sundt
As printed in The Lumberjack on September 18, 2008
The “right way” to make a movie changes depending on who you ask. Some people like the big special effects, others like the silly little romances. I’m a pretty equal-opportunity guy when it comes to stories, so long as there are good characters to back it all up. Regardless of a plot, my favorite films tend to be those about good, sharply-drawn characters, which is the reason I loved me some Burn After Reading, the new film by the Coen Brothers.
The directing duo, hot off their Oscar-winning film No Country for Old Men, is doing what they always do after they make an art picture. After Blood Simple came Raising Arizona, after Fargo came The Big Lebowski. Make the art film, then do the silly film. Make No Country for Old Men, then do Burn After Reading. The film is a biting satire that celebrates the stupidity of a U.S. intelligence agency. Or maybe it’s just a silly movie about silly people. Whatever the case, I laughed rather heartily.
The plot is a tad long-winded, but because this is really a film about characters, I feel attempting to describe the plot would be detrimental to this review. However, I will do my best to set the scene for you.
To put it in simple terms: a CIA analyst, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), is fired for being an alcoholic. He decides to write a memoir. His musings are burned onto a CD with a bunch of financial information. Then his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) copies the files to assist her in her divorce case. Her attorney’s secretary drops her copy of the files in a gym locker room, which is discovered by Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand). They figure out that the data belongs to Osborne, and accordingly try to collect a reward (or ransom, as the case may be). Oh, and Katie is having an affair with Harry (George Clooney), who is also seeing Linda.
The film is rather convoluted, so the directors offer the audience insight into the plot’s madness via two CIA agents — Cox’s former boss (David Rasche) and his superior (the invaluable J.K. Simmons). They struggle to make sense of the entire affair, with little success. At one point, the officer tells his boss, “We don’t really know what’s happening, but they all appear to be sleeping with each other.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
The Coens find a certain joy in exploring the lives of stupid people. However, the difference between Burn After Reading and their other comedies is the seemingly cartoon-like way the actors carry themselves. They are put to the task to make faces as surprised as Daffy Duck or as conniving as Bugs Bunny. The directors love making Clooney look like an idiot (which I think helps him stay modest as an actor), and have just as much fun doing it to everyone else in the cast. Osborne states at one point, “You’re part of a league of morons.” And so it is.
I think the directors have found a glorious new moron in Pitt, who gets to play in a way we haven’t really seen him play before. I have always maintained that he is the rarity in Hollywood — the pretty boy that actually had talent, the infrequent heartthrob who, for those of us who don’t care just how good-looking he is, is actually worth watching. Pitt gets to tap into the hilarious idiot I have often suspected was hiding in the back of his mind, but does so in a way that doesn’t betray his real skills as an actor. Everybody in the cast is pretty solid, but it’s the zany behavior of Pitt’s gym employee, with his iPod plugs and bike helmet, that carries this film not to a place of greatness, but more appropriate goodness.
Pitt’s performance also works to distract the audience from the glaring problems with Burn After Reading. The movie has some major pacing issues, where the film languishes in its lack of plot. It’s a movie about characters, and it seems appropriate that pointlessness takes over. The Coens don’t let the slowness happen for very long, and make the common Coen decision to use sudden moments of violence to punch things up. I am not offended by violence and am a self-proclaimed whore for good dialogue, which is almost always assured in a movie by the Coen Brothers. However, I imagine some viewers walking away either grossed-out by the bloodshed or irritated that the film wasn’t about something more than stupid people.
Assured with a Coen film, even the occasional lackluster ones, is the always-outstanding cinematography. Here they employ Emmanuel Lubezki, who was nominated for an Oscar (and should have won) for his work in the remarkable 2006 film Children of Men. His shots here perfectly complement the performances and go right with the driving score by Carter Burwell, who has collaborated with the Coens since their first film, Blood Simple.
Burn After Reading cuts-off right around the 90-minute mark, and it all seems rather sudden. When my friends and I left the theater, one of them was flat-out surprised by how abrupt the whole thing seemed. I can see what she means, but I think it comes at the right moment. The Coens have learned by now when they are overstaying their welcome, especially when they are making a movie about characters and not plot.
This is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly worth watching. I think the way to enjoy Burn After Reading is to not take any moment too seriously. The film is a farce about stupid people doing stupid things. Near the end, the CIA head asks his subordinate, “What did we learn here?” The subordinate says he doesn’t know.
The CIA head responds, “Yeah, I don’t (expletive)ing know either.” And there is nothing to learn in Burn After Reading, nothing to take away. But it’s a whole lot of fun.