The Good: Moments of humor
The Bad: Unlikable characters, Not overly funny or clever, Pacing, Nothing superlative on the acting front.
The Basics: Wasting the talents of those involved, Burn After Reading is a letdown by the Coen Brothers; involving a lost disc and a woman's attempt to make money off it.
Last night, I had the choice of rewatching a film I had seen before and loved or taking in Burn After Reading, the latest endeavor by the Coen Brothers. Given that I was a little tired, I opted for the shorter of the two movies and that led me to screen Burn After Reading. I have traditionally enjoyed the dark humor and quirky characters presented in Coen Brothers films and had seen a few previews for this movie which made me think it would be an enjoyable addition to their library. It was not.
As I contemplate Burn After Reading, I find myself thinking of David Lynch. Is it possible the Coen brothers want to be David Lynch? Lynch has a way of getting away with absurd and quirky for the sake of quirky. He pulled it off admirably with Mulholland Drive (reviewed here!) even though the film used a sense of random plot elements, purposely campy acting and obvious dream imagery intended to confuse viewers as opposed to telling a narrative with any real sense. The Coen brothers seem to want to do this at various points in Burn After Reading and they fail terribly. The story is confused (not confusing), pointless and ultimately unimpressive, leaving even a viewer who is predisposed toward the quirky and odd disappointed.
Osbourne Cox is an intelligence agent who is demoted and transferred within the CIA due to his drinking problem and erratic behavior. Rather than endure such humiliation, he leaves his job, much to the chagrin of his wife, Katie. Osbourne sets out to make a living by writing his memoirs, which he does with limited success while Katie makes moves to divorce him. In the process, Katie copies his memoirs onto a disc for her lawyer and that disc ends up left behind at a gym where Linda Litzke and Chad.
Linda and Chad come across the disc, access it and come to believe that it is not a memoir, but rather a collection of state secrets. They attempt to extort Osbourne for money for the disc and when he refuses to play ball, they take it to the Russians in hope of selling the information to them, all so Linda can get a boob job. Tragedy befalls Chad and Linda works to escalate things, mostly to impress Harry . . . and then the movie ends.
Outside that plot description, there are just minor details of character. For example, Harry, a Treasury Department worker, is having an affair with Katie and begins going out with Linda when he begins to tire of her. Linda works with Chad and under Ted, who has an obvious crush on her. Linda is motivated by a desire to make enough money so she can have cosmetic surgery. Only that last fact actually has a real effect on the plot and truth be told, it only explains why Linda does what she is doing.
Otherwise, Burn After Reading is a dark farce that is more about weird for the sake of weird than actually creating interesting, viable characters in absurd situations or absurd characters in realistic situations. Instead, the film is intentionally choppy, as if the Coen Brothers primarily learned from No Country For Old Men that they did not have to show vital parts of a story.
The unfortunate aspect of Burn After Reading is that the summary sections where an intelligence agent monitoring the situation discusses it with his supervisor are possibly the best, most direct, funniest portions of the movie. In these sections, the movie is recapped and events are filled in without showing them on screen. This saves the viewer from actually having to watch any of the primary characters do anything and this is, strangely, a relief given how tedious and unlikable they are.
Moreover, the acting in Burn After Reading is a terrible waste of the talent involved. Brad Pitt moves like his crazy character in Twelve Monkeys (reviewed here!) and talks like the character he portrayed on Friends for his guest shot there. Frances McDormand, who can usually be counted on for a solid performance seems to think that all she needs to do to be funny is bug out her eyes and talk in a slightly higher pitch. She plays Linda as the combination of an opportunist and an idiot and her acting is simply a bug-eyed, energetic recasting of her "Fargo" character in some ways. Regardless, there is something familiar and well within her established range in the way she plays Linda.
George Clooney is given top billing in Burn After Reading and he plays Harry, arguably the least significant role in the main plot. He is thoroughly unlikable as a slimy adulterer who talks his way into Linda's heart and . . . wait, yes, we've seen this before, too. The Coen brothers used him essentially the same way as the protagonist in O Brother Where Art Thou? And that the Coen brothers use John Malkovich to play a character with a short temper is hardly worth exploring. Even Richard Jenkins seems to have been more a function of casting as the love-struck Ted. One suspects the Coen brothers saw his work on the first season of Six Feet Under (reviewed here!) and said "That's our Ted!"
In other words, none of the performances in Burn After Reading are especially compelling, even Tilda Swinton, who I usually like. Perhaps this is because Swinton's character of Katie is usually relegated to listening to other people deliver their much more active lines leaving Swinton to perform mostly by staring fixedly at other characters. If it seems I am glossing over my usual analysis of plot and character, then I have not been clear enough:
The plot is a simple extortion character and outside a passing trait or two used to completely define them, none of the characters have character. They are types: Harry is the womanizer, Linda is an opportunist, Osbourne is the furious heavy, Katie is the wronged wife, Chad is the idiot sidekick and Ted is the honorable, love-struck guy. The rest of the movie is a series of quick cuts, quirky one-liners that fail to add up to anything substantive and jokes that are not nearly as funny as anything else the Coen brothers have done.
Instead, Burn After Reading is problematic in its pacing, rushed in its resolution and populated by characters who are thoroughly unenjoyable to watch. Life is too short and those who want something funny will do better by tuning into . . . pretty much anything else.
For other works by the Coen Brothers, check out my reviews of:
No Country For Old Men
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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