A film review by Craig J. Koban

BURN AFTER READING jj
˝ 

2008, R, 96 mins.

Harry Pfarrer: George Clooney / Chad Feldheimer: Brad Pitt / Linda Litzke: Frances McDormand / Osborne Cox: John Malkovich / Katie Cox: Tilda Swinton / Tad Treffon: Richard Jenkins / CIA boss: J.K. Simmons / CIA officer: David Rasche

Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Cohen

It has become abundantly clear that if one gives just a cursory look at the Coen Brothers’ film resume then one unavoidable conclusion can be made: 

Every masterful work that they have concocted has begotten a lesser, dare I say, more disposable work.    

Just think: BLOOD SIMPLE spawned RAISING ARIZONA, BARTON FINK spawned THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, FARGO spawned THE BIG LEBOWSKI, OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, and THE LADYKILLERS, and, like clockwork, last year’s ubiquitously cherished NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – the pair’s best film in a decade – has now spawned BURN AFTER READING, a sporadically funny, frequently zany and brazen, but - let's face it - largely forgettable effort. 

Should this be considered a sleight against the Coens?  Not really.  They have an obvious repetitive history of offering up filmgoers substantial and brilliant films by then following them up with efforts that only moderately embellishes their limitless talents.  Perhaps after garnering multiple Oscar wins with their NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, any follow-up would be sure to disappoint.  My expectations for the auspicious filmmakers are certainly rising.  I guess that is why my reaction is so lukewarm to BURN AFTER READING, a quintessentially Coenesque screwball black comedy that’s high on dumber than dumb simpletons, genre twisting comedy conventions, surprisingly shocking and grisly violence, and overall silliness that borders on broad and over the top and then leaps over that boundary.   In a way, it’s pure subversive silliness from the Coens through and through and, on other more disagreeable levels, it’s material and tone feels all too familiar and messily developed.   

You gain an overwhelming sense with the film that this is a work that the Coen Brothers have proven they can do time and time again with reasonably capability and confidence; it's like they are simply going back to a familiar cinematic well rather than attempting to do something worthwhile, different, and unique.  BURN AFTER READING is an odd mixture: It appeased the fan in me for the Coens’ past quirky and offbeat comedies, but with my expectations recently heightened, I guess that I want and expect more from them now.  There is almost a self-congratulatory arrogance that permeates BURN AFTER READING: the Coens know they are easily above this material, but they also understand that they have an easy audience for it as well, which only increases the film’s lack of genuine wit, intrigue, and ingenuity.  

The film is funny, yes, but in only small and intermittent dosages, and its pacing is sluggish due to a beyond convoluted script that never once feels balanced and coherent.  Furthermore, there are just too many odd doofuses and subplots that wreak comic havoc in this story, which elevates the film’s lack of focus.  Throughout, it plainly appears that the Coens grab the ball, lose it here and there, and then subsequently just go through the motions.  It can be said that their tragic dramas are ripe with a dark moodiness and an underlining sense of dread and despair (ala NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) and that their comedies mock and ridicule with a stinging ferocity.  BURN AFTER READING inspires giggles, to be sure, but its hilarious roar is largely muted and it's targets have been skewered before, and to much better effect. 

Self-described by Ethan Coen as a “version of a Tony Scott/Jason Bourne movie…without the explosions,” BURN AFTER READING is a spy farce that marks the brothers’ first original screenplay since their 2001 noir, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.  Even more specifically, the film continues the Coens’ long-standing and highly popular tradition of writing characters that are insipid morons.  One of the film’s stars and regular Coens Brothers collaborator, George Clooney, aptly described BURN AFTER READING as a fitting third film is his “Idiot Trilogy”, which is comprised of OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? and the underrated INTOLERABLE CRUELTY from 2003.  True to form, the Coens populate BURN AFTER READING with a some outlandishly idiotic and blissfully ignorant dumb-dumbs. 

We first meet a CIA agent named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, infusing his multiple F-bomb throwing degenerate with a cagey and gnarled antagonism) who is given notice by his superior (played by Sledgehammer himself, David Rasche) that he will be unceremoniously demoted.  Completely infuriated, he decides to quit the agency, much to the chagrin of his icy cold fish of a wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton, so good at playing parts with such a steely eyed and rock steady vindictiveness).  Osborn decides that he is going to write the ultimate tell-all memoir that will truly expose some scandalous secrets of his former agency.  He seems so entombed in thoughts of his own self-righteousness that he can't seem to decipher that Katie is actually cheating on him behind his back with an ex-secret service agent - and Idiot #1 - named Harry Pfarrer (Clooney, an uninhibited, madcap and capricious delight).  We also discover that Harry is an adulterer that is being wickedly unfaithful not only to his wife, but to Katie as well.  He surfs the web and seems willing to go on date after date, without much thought of monogamy.   And, he has a very, very peculiar hobby that he feverously works at in his basement, and when it’s revealed, it generates the film’s biggest shock laugh, although it feels more akin to the Farrellys than the Coens. 

From here the film gets a lot more complicated, so I will be as concise as possible.  Through the Internet Harry meets up with a lonely, self-hating gym worker – and Idiot #2 - named Linda Litzke (Coen alumni France McDormand, channeling a much of her infectious zaniness from FARGO).  She represents perhaps the film’s most pathetic and sad creation: Being middle-aged, she thinks that she needs serious physical work done to make her look more acceptable at work, but unfortunately her HMO sees all of her requested cosmetic surgery as purely elective and non-insurable, which drives her to near paranoia.  Only her boss, played with a timid shyness by the great Richard Jenkins, sees her real inner beauty and spends much of the film pining for her. 

Linda gets what she feels is a big break when her work colleague, Chad (Idiot #3, played as a unapologetic i-Pod wearing, fist pumped, bubble eyed, and airheaded goofball by a very game and vanity free Brad Pitt) unwittingly finds a copy of Osborne’s memoirs on a computer disc.  Linda sees this as a potential goldmine.  An early scene that has her and her conspirator call up Osborne in the middle of the night and feebly attempt to blackmail him into paying them for the disc is the film’s comic highlight.  Seeing Malkovich become an utterly unhinged emotional time bomb is the film’s real delight, as is seeing Pitt and McDormand generate considerable chemistry and comic mileage out of their dynamic duo of intellectually vacant ransomers. 

I don’t want to say too much more about the film’s story, other that to say Linda and Brad decide – among all things – to sell Osbourne’s memoirs of intelligence secrets to the Russians in hopes of a big payday, which Linda hopes will help her in her quest for the perfect cosmetically altered hard body.  The terribly cluttered script eventually allows for most of the characters to intersect at one point or another, in some instances during scenes of genuine merriment, and in two others, in moments of appallingly graphic blood-letting (characters are never really truly safe in a Coens Brother caper).  My fears of not making any sense of BURN AFTER READING is validated by the hilarious comment from a head CIA honcho, played in a very brief, but very funny, performance by J.K. Simmons.  At one point when a CIA stooge attempts to tell him of everything that has transpired in the film, Simmons sarcastically deadpans to report back to him when “it all makes sense.”  His very short-lived appearance in BURN AFTER READING showcases just how tenacious Simmons is with getting huge laughs with minimal lines and fuss. 

There is much that I liked in the film, like Simmons’ amusingly straight faced comments, to Malkovich’s slow detachment from disgruntlement to insanity, to McDormand and Pitt’s wickedly droll performances as dim-witted, slack-jawed fools.  Clooney as well never shies away from changing gears abruptly away from playing handsome leading men, is cheerfully unhinged as Harry, a man of moral duplicity where his cravings for sex goes a bit too far.  What the Coens certainly have in their favor is gathering up a relative who’s who of Hollywood A-list talent – and people that are often know for their dramatic roles – and bringing them together in respective performances that celebrate unhinged tomfoolery.   

Yet, what the Coens don’t have is an overall script that gels together with levelheaded fluidity.  The pacing, at first, is slow (it takes BURN AFTER READING a long time to get into the real thrust of the plot, and at a sparse 96 minutes, films like this don’t have the luxury of lengthy and lethargic exposition).  The film also attempts to hone in its focus on perhaps too many characters too much of the time BURN AFTER READING feels like it was never given the benefit of a rewrite.  Even when the script lags, the big laughs are also undesirably spaced out with too many lulls of failed comic opportunities.  And even with the great Simmons, serving up film’s uproarious surmising commentary in the final scene, BURN AFTER READING lazily rushes to a conclusion that gathers up all loose ends and concludes all story threads with what amounts to a few scant lines of dialogue.  Considering the verbosity of the Coens as screenwriters, I definitely expected more right before the end credits rolled by. 

Then again…that’s my unsatisfying mantra for this review: I wanted and expected more.  Certainly, BURN AFTER READING does not, and should not, deserve comparisons with the crime masterpiece that was their last film, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.  However, with its fairly large, but infrequent laughs, a screenplay that seems simultaneously hurried and too complex and thorny for its own good, and a tone that’s subversively ridiculous, but just not consistently enough, it’s really difficult to label BURN AFTER READING as anything more than an inconsequential Coens effort.  The film is entertaining in small dosages, and it gets chuckles in some of the right spots, but it does not shine with the gloriously misanthropic farces of the brothers' past.  And…of course this is not in the same league as NO COUNTRY, but even when compared to the Coens’ lesser films of irreverence and brazen quirkiness, BURN AFTER READING is bewilderingly undistinguished, a minor effort from two men that should be looking towards greater creative heights.

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