Friday, September 12, 2008

Burn After Reading (2008, Joel and Ethan Coen)

One of the trademarks of practically all great comedies is that they hold up a funhouse mirror to human folly. And while I wouldn’t call Burn After Reading a masterpiece, it definitely fits in this tradition. To really appreciate the movie, one must recognize how self-absorbed nearly every single major character in the film is, and realize how well the Coens use the heightened drama required by an espionage plot to explode this all-around self-absorption. These people are so blinkered by their own egos that they can’t look around and see the shit storm they’ve stirred up.

Most obviously, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is such a puffed-up prick he doesn’t realize how off-putting he is, and he’s so consumed with taking offense to others calling him a drunk that he can’t acknowledge his problem. But even a relatively benign character like Linda (Frances McDormand) isn’t immune- she’s obsessed with getting cosmetic surgery (“I’ve gotten about as far as this body can take me”) in order to attract the caliber of man she desires. This colors almost all of her decisions throughout the film.

And what’s going on with Harry, played by George Clooney? He cheats on his wife (who for reasons of her own doesn’t seem all that broken up about it) with Osbourne’s wife (Tilda Swinton), each of whom refers to the other as “a cold, stuck-up bitch” until we start to wonder if that’s Harry’s type. In turn, he cheats on them by hooking up with women he meets through the personal ads, including - you guessed it- Linda. Yet I don’t think he means any harm- he’s simply addicted to sex as an end in itself (look at the gift he makes for his wife) with little regard for the personal entanglements that can result. But then, he’s pretty oblivious all around, as evidenced by the severity of his reaction to an untimely surprise.

Of course, it goes without saying that Burn After Reading is impeccably acted- few filmmakers rival the Coens for their ability to get the most out of their actors. I’m thinking in particular of Malkovich, whose reptilian pomposity has rarely been effectively utilized, and Brad Pitt, who continues to demonstrate his knack for kidding his himbo looks by playing a gym rat whose general befuddlement quickly leads him to get in over his head.

Many of the film’s detractors have taken the Coens to task (yet again) for showing contempt toward their characters. But I don’t think it’s that simple. In many ways, this is a kind of comedy corrective to the self-righteous posturing of movies like Crash and Babel, with the Coens handling their characters’ travails with biting wit, rather than wailing and gnashing their teeth about human frailty and the impossibility of connecting with those outside our personal bubble. They’re cranky and misanthropic, but they’re also right, and the film makes its points in a way that’s both more entertaining and less pious than either of these bits of Oscar-bait.

Look at the film’s final scene, in which (after all the shit goes down) a pair of CIA agents, played by J.K. Simmons and David Rasche, tries to suss everything out only to throw up their hands in frustration. Like us, they can’t help but marvel at the huge mess that’s resulted from a relatively insignificant matter- blackmail, possible treason, bodies piling up- that has poisoned everyone it’s touched, even those rare people who’ve acted in a relatively selfless manner. I was reminded a bit of the faeries and spirits of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who despite their role in the human characters’ misadventures are also detached enough to try to make sense of human messiness. “What fools these mortals be,” indeed.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

1 comment:

Pat R said...

Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he's not taking himself too seriously... in any case, it's about time someone made good use of his habitually spastic arm movements