Friday, September 12, 2008

Burn After Reading

“I thought you might be worried about the security, of your shit.”

Burn After Reading, written and directed by the Coen Brothers, is a thriller set in a world not too far from Dumb & Dumber. It’s a tale of secrets, lies, and murder through an idiot lens. It’s an interesting idea that struggles at becoming a good film.

The story centers around a recently fired CIA agent (John Malkovich) with a bad temper whose memoirs wind up in the hands of two dumb gym employees (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt). After being attacked the first time the pair attempt to return the disk their plans turn towards blackmail or to selling the dubious contents to the Russians. As to why the film chooses the Russians, well, the joke is obvious though the rationale (like so much in the film) is not.

How the disk managed to end up in the hands of the pair is a bit convoluted and involves the agent’s wife (Tilda Swinton) who is sleeping with a Treasury Agent (George Clooney) and is plotting a divorce. The tale is further complicated when Harry (Clooney) starts dating Linda (McDormand) in one of many coincidences the plot relies on. The world these people live in is scarcely larger than the New York City of the first Fantastic Four film.

One of the major problems here is the set-up. Both Clooney and Pitt are cast as goofs and the Coen Brothers expect us to laugh because they believe seeing the pair in goofy roles is funny in and of itself. Although it is at times, that premise is flawed. Instead consider the alternative if the roles themselves were beefed up and were funny on their own - before casting stars in them. Clooney and Pitt both provide fine moments, along with some groans, but the characters they play, especially Pitt, are impossible to take seriously even when the film turns serious.

Also an issue are the logistics of the pairs. Swinton and Malkovich need to be married at the beginning to set-up the plot but we are given no plausible reason why this pair would ever hook-up, much less make the walk down the aisle. The same can be said of Clooney’s Lothario who has his choice of all kinds of women, many over the course of the film; why would he go for a complicated affair with the ball-busting wife of an acquaintance, or spend more than a single night with insecure Linda? When the only answer is “because the plot requires it to” you know there’s trouble.

Which isn’t to say I disliked the film. When it manages to put its over-goofiness in check it provides many memorable moments, both humorous and sad. My favorite involves a CIA Officer (David Rasche) reporting to his superior (J.K. Simmons) about the increasingly crazy events which keep spiraling futher and further out of control. These are terrific, reminding me of old Bob Newhart phone bits, and I wish more of these had been spaced evenly throughout the film.

With this film the Coens return to the type of humor from films like Raising Arizona (of which I am not a fan), but it lacks the zany energy of The Big Lebowski. Is it worth seeing? If you are a huge fan of the Coen’s work or if you’ve got time and money to kill, maybe. It’s a flawed work which relies on mostly cheap laughs that at times will make you smile, but aside from those great scenes with J.J. Jameson and Sledge Hammer there’s not too much you’d miss if you gave this one a pass.

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