Burn After Watching? Not quite, but not up to snuff for these gallows-humor masters.
I love the Coen Brothers, but this time they were just coasting; it’s a story very similar to their excellent Fargo, shuffled to Washington D.C. While the Coen boy grew up in Minnesota and probably played duck, duck, grey duck, they seem to know D.C. only peripherally, and both the characters and story suffer. Is it a horrible movie? I enjoyed it somewhat, but it is a forgettable and minor work in their canon. After No Country for Old Men it is certainly forgivable, but it’s sad that their comic masterpieces such as Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski have been replaced with stuff like this, and other forgettables like the remake of The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty.
Burn After Reading is about a low-ranking CIA analyst who after leaving the agency not of his own volition, decides to write his memoirs. I’m sorry, his memoir. Osbourne Cox, played straight as a poison-barbed arrow by John Malkovich, is a second-generation spook with an inflated sense of worth both at his job and in his marriage. His life’s slow downward spiral into shit begins in the first scene, where he’s being demoted; for political reasons, he thinks, but a drinking problem is mentioned. His boss (David Rasche) seems to be channeling William H. Macy’s performance from Fargo, which is unfortunate, for you immediately start pining for that superior film.
Lie back and think of England
Ozzie is married to Katie (Tilda Swinton, Thumbsucker, Michael Clayton) an A personality so self-absorbed that she badgers him about not picking up artisanal cheeses and never finds out he lost his job. Oh, actually, he quit. Tilda is always excellent and she sums up her character with a snort, when Ozzie says he quit to work on his memoir. Rather like Stephen Colbert, he is insistent on Francophone pronunciation, damn the colloquialisms. At Katie’s dinner party, we meet Harry Pfarrer, played by George Clooney as a twitchy Treasury agent married to a successful children’s book author. He’s sleeping with Katie. As we’ll find out, pretty much everyone is sleeping with someone in this story, and the webs of deceit make the misunderstandings and misconceptions fall like dominoes.
Like most people who “retire” to write, Ozzie sits in the basement watching TV in his pajamas. Katie is contemplating divorce, so her lawyer tells her to get his financials ready for rifling, which eventually leads to a CD being found at Hardbodies Gym, by two endearing boneheads. Chad is that energetic idiot Brad Pitt was born to play; similar to his 12 Monkeys character but perky like Chester the dog from the Warner Brothers cartoons. He and Linda (Frances McDormand), an aging hardbody who’s obsessed with getting surgical assistance to regain former perfections, decide to find the owner of the CD, which is full of “secret shit.”
The bumbling blackmailers intersect with Ozzie’s crumbling marriage, Harry’s sex addiction, and eventually get the attention of the CIA, who have been watching unhinged Ozzie, of course. In the middle of the story, things take a surprising turn toward the violent, and it’s there that it began to lose me. I like a good dark comedy and bloodshed doesn’t bother me, but it was so unexpected that it felt forced and Shakespearean (as in, kill someone when you run out of ideas). The story doesn’t fall apart here, and there are still some great laughs- such as when Harry takes a sledgehammer to his Home Depot version of an item sold in the back of “gentleman’s magazines.”
There will be blood
What’s enjoyable here are the characters. J.K. Simmons (Juno, Spider-Man) shows up late as a CIA chief trying to figure out what the hell is going on and if he should even care; he’s got some of the best lines in the movie, but he made me wonder why I should care either. The basic premise is so close to that of Fargo that I kept thinking back to how the desperations of those ordinary people were so much more interesting. And the ending is so abrupt, and so similar to a much more effective scene in that movie, that I felt like the Brothers Coen got a little lazy.
They take an amusing poke at rom-coms
While some Coen movies like Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy took a while to sink in, some never manage to. I enjoyed The Man Who Wasn’t There, but I haven’t felt like watching it again; Burn After Reading fits into that category. Admittedly, I disliked O Brother, Where Art Thou? on first watch and it took several viewings before I looked past some of the sloppy shoe-hornings of the plot, such as jamming the legend of Robert Johnson and Baby Face Nelson into an otherwise perfect Appalachian folktale. That movie’s not perfect either, but is a lot of fun to watch and rewatch. Even dark comedies like Fargo and Blood Simple, which may not be very pleasant, lend to rewatching. They have the graveside manner of a Charles Addams or Hitchcock, something Burn After Reading never manages. Though it certainly tries.
Careful with that Axe, Osbourne
This is one time when I think Ebert’s rule that no good movie is long enough and no bad movie is short enough may not apply; this might have been a better movie if it were a bit longer. Not to wrap up the ending, but to give us more time with some well-crafted characters. I would have loved to see Clooney’s jittery sex addict and food hypochondriac flail some more; the payoff to Tilda Swinton’s “stuck-up ice cold bitch” character was too brief and clumsy. I did enjoy the fake Dermot Mulroney rom-com that Linda keeps taking her internet hook-ups to see, and watching Malkovich’s alkie Ozzie lose it was worth the build up. But maybe this one was cut too close to the bone. The Coen Brothers used to make in-joke movies that I felt like I got- The Big Lebowski was one of my favorite theater experiences, when I disagreed with the audience mutterings of “worst movie I’ve ever seen.” Those mutterings were heard this time too, and while I didn’t agree, I understood why they said it.
2.5 out of 4 stars; worth a rental