22 September, 2008

'Burn After Reading' - Review

The media coverage surrounding Burn After Reading seems to be of two varieties: Pinpointing where the film fits within the pantheon of "Coen brothers" movies, and the Nature of Brad Pitt's hair. I say, In the bottom half, and Yes, his hair sure is a little goofy.

But, then again, I'm no Coen bros. expert (I probably saw The Big Lebowski when I was about 14, and I don't remember a single second of it [Sacrilege!]), and I get haircuts with the singular intent of keeping my hair short enough to not have to brush it, so I don't know where that leaves us...

At the least, I think we can agree that Burn After Reading isn't as good as No Country For Old Men, and nor did it want to be. It is silly, and wacky, and goofy, and doesn't carry the heavy burden of much intelligence or genuine empathy, at least not in the deep and existential way No Country did. Burn After Reading is decidedly superficial.

John Malkovich plays an ex-CIA man, fired from the job for alcoholism, and so bitter and so soured from--what? ...existing?--that he apparently hates everyone and everything, and therefore thinks that what he really ought to do is write his memoirs. George Clooney is married to a children's book author and works for the government as a federal agent and seems consigned to occupational impotence (and is, conversely, a closet pervert). Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt are the dimwitted boobs from the local Hard Bodies gym, who unintentionally inflict their hopeless pipedreams (i.e., a head-to-toe makeover) onto everyone else, when they find a CD of numbers and names and "secret shit" and try and sell it to the Russians. Tilda Swinton is an ice-cold bitch (inexplicably at the center of a jealous love triangle), Richard Jenkins is the boss of the boobs at the gym, and J.K. Simmons and David Rasche are two CIA agents who are left trying the make sense of what eventually becomes a very messy situation.

And, you know, I really think that's all there is to it. These characters, each a little goofier than the next, spend the hour-and-a-half runtime casually circling around each other, variously crossing paths and stepping on each other's toes and proving that, I guess, everyone who ever wanted something out of life is an idiot. Or something like that. I think.

Everyone in this movie is so over-the-top, and yet still so unequivocally simple. They make stupid decisions and talk with funny intonations and, time after time, fail to understand--or even remotely "get"--what's going on around them. The big joke at the end of the movie is that the CIA, who is in the business of Intelligence, really just can't find any. At least not here, in America, where people are mean-spirited and paranoid and horny and angry and just-plain dumb.

And don't get me wrong, dumb people can be funny. And Burn After Reading can definitely be funny. Really funny, in fact. You know, it's actually a pretty good joke, having the CIA chase after a bunch of goofs, who really have no plans, no idea what they're doing, and really don't warrant such scrutiny. This is the Coen's unique brand of intelligent observation (...of morons).

But then there are these awkward moments, sprinkled throughout the movie, where things feel like they (gasp!) get a little too serious. I mean, I guess that's the Coen's schtick, right? Finding--and exploiting--those tricky moments where comedy and violence intersect? But whereas, say, while Fargo's climactic woodchipper scene is all-at-once shocking and morbid and darkly witty--succeeding because the madness has stemmed out of a questionably "sane" world (a world grown, inevitably, unwieldy and out-of-control by Unpredictability)--the whole universe of 'Burn After Reading' already seems a little too nuts.

So when McDormand freaks out when partner-in-crime Pitt fails to return from a secret mission, her immediate emotive response feels so genuine that it actually feels...false. And when Clooney, who spends 80% of his screentime mugging at the camera, employing pratfalls, and generally cultivating the bizarrest personality for a sex-hound ever, suddenly wells up with so much real emotion that he calls his absent wife and really truly wants her to come home and comfort him...well, it doesn't seem right. Not in this movie, anyway. It makes for a really discombobulating experience, where it isn't quite as easy as it should be to laugh at each character's outrageous tics and madcap personalities. At least not when we're supposed to believe they were shedding genuine tears (or sharing remotely honest desires) in the previous scene.

And they go around and around in circles like this. Much like the story itself. Every bit of new information is based on a non-fact or a misinterpretation, and once the pieces of the plot are set in motion, it doesn't really ever cover new ground. It just circles back on itself, letting one character serendipitously run into another, or revealing a hidden relationship between two already established characters. It meanders between their misguided lives, without motive or purpose, save for watching them screw things up even more. When McDormand and Pitt meet "the Russians," the endeavor doesn't get them anywhere, or open up any new options for the story--it's a joke, in-and-of-itself, to simply meet "the Russians." The Cold War is over, but they don't "get" it. Ha ha.

And then it circles back, and the CIA agents don't get why these boobs would meet the Russians, and ex-CIA Malkovich doesn't see what the Russians have to do with anything. Exactly.

Watch the trailer here.

Heard The New Bond Theme?

No? Well here it is:

I like it. I think it's...good. Really pretty good. But not great. Not "Goldfinger" great, and certainly not "GoldenEye" great. But really pretty good. Of course it means nothing without the accompaniment of Bond titles. They add so much.

Thanks to stereogum.

For better audio, check out the official stream.

Also, on a completely unrelated note, did I ever tell you how much I love ELO's "Evil Woman"? No? Well here it is: