I recently read two opposing reviews about the newest Coen brothers’ film, “Burn After Reading,” and while I tended towards one review over the other, I did not agree with either of them. Both reviews based their opinions of the film on whether they understood the plot. The writer who did not enjoy the film complained that the plot was confusing and the actions of the characters were unfounded. The writer who did enjoy the film basically described the plot and stated that, in conclusion, the film was funny, thus good. Both of these writers were college students, similar in age to the writer of this particular article. At the risk of sounding superior, I must say that these reviews make me concerned about the future of moviegoers in America.
But this is not a review of America’s lack of appreciation for good cinema. This is a review of the film “Burn After Reading,” starring Francis McDormand, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton.
I must start with another reference to the reviews that I have already read about this film. The writer who did not enjoy the movie claimed that the actions undertaken and assumptions made by the characters in the film were unfounded and ridiculous. I agree that the characters were largely ridiculous, but the actions that they take are completely founded in their ridiculous self- and world-perspectives. To begin with, every character in the film believes themselves vastly more important than they clearly are. McDormand’s and Pitt’s dull-witted gym workers are a perfect example. They find a disk of information that they have no idea how to decipher and they immediately think that it is filled with confidential records that they can ransom to the owner of said disk. While any rational person would simply dismiss the disk as someone’s business data or something equally as mundane, these gym employees believe that their lives should be filled with excitement and intrigue, and thus create their own excitement and intrigue. Malkovich’s anger-prone ex-CIA analyst has similar delusions of grandeur, beginning with the content of the lost disk: his memoirs. As his wife (Swinton) so delicately puts it, “who on Earth would think that that’s worth anything?” But Malkovich so thoroughly believes in his importance that he meets with Pitt to discuss the ransom demands on what only he knows is his own memoirs. But perhaps the most delusional character of them all is Clooney’s hyper-paranoid Treasury clerk. By the end of the film, Clooney is so convinced that everyone around him is spying on him that he attempts to flee the country. Again, any rational person would have the rightness of mind to know that spying on a Treasury clerk is highly unlikely and mostly pointless. However, Clooney convinces himself that every person around him revolves his or her own life around him.
All of these nearly insane characters have one main thing in common: they all display extreme versions of contemptible characteristics that are unfortunately prevalent in our society. McDormand displays incredible superficiality; her goal in this whole blackmail scandal is to get enough money to have copious cosmetic surgeries. Clooney and Malkovich are horribly self-centered and self-important. Clooney is also obsessed with sex, as is illustrated in his many affairs and his hilariously bizarre “gift” to his wife. Pitt, although seemingly innocent in his stupidity, is enterprising and greedy, thinking immediately of a reward upon finding the disk. Even Swinton, who is the least involved in the whole scandal, is a “cold, stuck-up bitch” who calculates her affair with Clooney and divorce from Malkovich with complete emotionless detachment.
All of these characters interact to create dark hilarity that will make you question your own morals as you laugh at things like extra-marital relationships, online dating, blackmail, murder and paranoia. The most hilarious of all, however, are the calm attempts to connect the bizarre incidents together by a CIA officer, played by David Rasche and his superior played by J.K. Simmons. Their attempts to synthesize the confusing and entirely ridiculous events taking place in the rest of the film so perfectly parallel the audience’s attempts to make heads or tails of the film. Because of this deliberate address of the nonsensicality of the film’s plot, it is clear that the Coen brothers did not merely write a story that made no sense, but that they are making a commentary about the nonsense.
Which brings me back to the other review I read, and many others like it that complain of the film’s shoddy plot, illogical characters and complete lack of direction or purpose. That’s the point, people! It’s called satire.
With that, I would like to recommend this film to anyone who knows the meaning of satire and anyone who enjoyed earlier Coen brothers’ dark comedies, such as “Raising Arizona” and definitely “Fargo.” If you’re looking for another “No Country for Old Men,” don’t think this is it. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy “Burn After Reading” just the same. I know I did.
Also, I forgot to mention the great performances by Brad Pitt and George Clooney. Clooney’s performance reminded me of his Golden Globe winning turn in another Coen brothers’ comedy, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And Pitt, in a very unusual role for him, is so funny and so convincing in his idiocy. These two guys are worth the price of admission (as usual). And J.K. Simmons is also great, with his deadpan delivery and perfectly conveyed exasperation. Seriously, just see the movie.
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OTHER MOVIES I'VE SEEN RECENTLY (in ten words or less)
Hardboiled (1992) [Hong Kong] : 3.5/5
-Mother, father, brother and cousin of all action films! Hilarious.
Casablanca (1942) [US] : 5/5
-Beautiful, tragic; absolutely a classic. Everyone should see it.
In Bruges (2008) [UK] : 4/5
-Weird until the end. Then absolutely amazing. A dark comedy.
Two Faces of My Girlfriend (2007) [Korea] : 4.5/5
-Cute, funny, and totally sweet. Almost made me cry.
The Beast and the Beauty (2005) [Korea] : 4/5
-Makes you rethink appearances. Very cute and sorta sad.