Saturday, November 15, 2008
Burn After Reading ***
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich
Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons, Brad Pitt
Gym employees Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) and Linda Litzke (McDormand) find a disc containing information they assume to be highly classified CIA information.
They link the disc to former CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (Malkovich), who has just been fired from his job and has decided to write his memoirs, to the disapproval of his wife Katie (Swinton) who is having an affair with Treasury agent, womanizer, Harry Pfarrer (Clooney) and has decided to divorce Osbourne.
Dim witted Chad sees the opportunity to get a reward for the safe return of the information, while Linda would finally get the cosmetic surgeries she desires in order to enter the next stage of her life as she sees it, but when they get rejected by Osbourne they approach the Russian Embassy unleashing screwball comedy that gets as dark as the Coen brothers can deliver.
"So we don't really know what anyone is after" goes CIA superior (J.K. Simmons who is in the film for two scenes but might be the ones you remember the most) when one of his employees briefs him on the actions of the other characters. Truth is we really don't know where anything is going, which doesn't diminish the joyful rush of the ride.
"Report back to me when it makes sense" he asks later on with no better results.
Aimlessly, but not purposely, throwing their characters into the plot like mice inside a labyrinth, the Coens seem to be having the time of their lives (and with reason considering their previous film) also providing the ensemble with some of the most entertaining roles they've played.
Clooney, who now seems part of their filmography is at his underrated best, playing a man who has found in sex the thrills he's lacking in his married life. What's wonderful about his character particularly is that the Coend don't turn him into a dislikable sex fiend, just as someone who is looking for what he needs in all the wrong places but has a real soul.
If the Coens planned to create characters exemplary for their idiocy, their plan backfires as they can't help but inject a certain amount of sincere emotional ache in all of them.
When we find Harry is building a gift for his wife we can't help but go aww, when we see what the gift is (where Clooney's eyes sparkle with puppy like fervor) we cringe while we go aww and when he leaves his lover's house offended, sex pillow under his arm, we know this could very well represent his heart.
Malkovich, at his neurotic best, is the poster boy for upper middle class failure. An alcoholic in denial, he moves into his yacht where he drinks and does aerobics as he plans his comeback to the world that shunned him. You laugh at him more than with him, but Malkovich doesn't really care, he's like a human version of Tom the cat.
Swinton is magnificent combining her ice queen qualities with an irresistible sex appeal. With Malkovich she reminds us that familiarity breeds contempt as she is disgusted by everything he does. Swinton doesn't even need to roll her eyes to let us know her apathy.
Pitt's Chad is a genius comedic creation, as the actor vanishes into this bleached blonde muscle machine who smiles when he has no other way of defense.
He never stops chewing gum or moving to what one can only assume is some sort of 90's Eurotrash piece on his iPod, he is ditzy and, scarily reminiscent of some political juggernauts (one whose picture is featured in the film), harmlessly likable.
McDormand's Linda is also some sort of small miracle, the actress absolutely devoid of any vanity becomes this insecure woman whose lack of self esteem comes off as a bizarre, almost admirable determination. "I've gotten about as far as this body can take me" she says and can you really blame her for seeking options instead of just moping?
The Washington D.C. in this film is some sort of bubble where bureaucracy and patriot paranoia gets in the way of common sense.
Everyone seems to think they're part of a bigger picture and with this the Coens (with a wicked eye for comedic detail) poke fun at the mindless fear that pervaded post 9/11 America, Carter Burwell's selfonsciously selfimportant score does a brilliant job highlighting this.
But they also deliver an acute observation of how people face aging; you might very well argue that "Burn After Reading" is a midlife fantasia, both for the Coens who have become filmmakers of whom one expects only great cinema amidst their undeniable flops and of all the characters to whom their actions, as idiotic as they result, might be their last chance of making a difference for self and country.