Lost in the Movies: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading

The title of the Coen brothers' latest trifle has a sly double meaning. On the one hand, it's an ironic nod to the spy literature which the movie parodies (ironic since the sensitive info is contained on disc, doubly ironic if one considers "burn" in the CD-writing sense, rather than the literally literal). But it also nicely sums up the directors' own lackluster, near-contemptuous attitude towards their own material. Watching the first few shots of No Country for Old Men, I told myself, "These guys could direct a phone book and make it interesting!" Burn After Reading puts that theory to the test.

To be fair, the premise is interesting: a prissy CIA agent (John Malkovich) with an overinflated ego and a drinking problem gets sacked, starts writing a memoir (he pronounces it "mem-wah") and promptly loses a CD containing an early draft. A buff nincompoop (Brad Pitt) finds the CD at a D.C. gym, becomes convinced that it contains state secrets, and decides, along with his neurotic plastic surgery-obsessed co-worker (Frances McDormand) to blackmail the agent. Meanwhile, there are multiple affairs, intrigue involving the CIA, divorce lawyers and online dating services, and also George Clooney as a sex-addicted, narcissistic, increasingly paranoid government employee. Hilarity ensues, right? Not exactly.

With all the potential for Lebowskiesque hijinks, working on multiple levels at once, the Coens drop the ball. They jump haphazardly between characters and locales, unconvincingly push their protagonists through arcs which seem to be missing pieces, fail to create a compelling reason to invest emotionally or intellectually in the proceedings, and recline into a drollery so dry that there's nary a laugh in the film's 105 minutes. Their increasingly aggressive elision of narratively important scenes escalates to the point where the climax occurs offscreen and two CIA agents rush to cover all the ground that the screenplay was too lazy to flesh out. It's somewhat amusing to be sure, and vaguely clever, but it's also shamelessly easy.

As is the film's decline into violence: halfway through, when things don't seem to be going anywhere, George Clooney unexpectedly shoots Brad Pitt in the head and, bada-bing, he blows his brains all over John Malkovich's nice Ivy League suits. OK, I'm kidding. But seriously from here on I will be discussing highly sensitive material so bow out if spoilers concern you. Now where was I? Ah yes. Halfway through the film, George Clooney shoots Brad Pitt in the head. It's shocking, unexpected, and provides the film a minor boost - I was more engaged with the movie from this point on. But the violence is a cheap trick because we don't actually care about the characters. Actually, there's one exception: the gym's shy, kindly manager. He gets shot in the chest by Malkovich, surviving to clamber up the steps and out the door only to be bludgeoned to death with a hammer in broad daylight.

The Coens used to share a sympathy with their simpler, more morally centered characters, a sympathy which lent weight and perspective to their largely amoral universe. With the bloody assault which ends the movie, they have apparently lain aside that final obstacle to postmodern zen. And with the purposefully anticlimactic epilogue which follows, they seem also to have lain to rest any pretense of formal complexity or structural ingenuity, of the sort which underpins the joyful chaos and confusion of their comic masterpiece, The Big Lebowski.

Of course, this all sounds a bit melodramatic. I suspect things aren't quite so dire in Coen-land. I don't actually believe that the Coens have given up or sold out simply because they've phoned in their follow-up to a Best Picture. Burn After Reading is quite obviously intended as a breather, a lark after the heavy lifting of No Country. And it has its moments: Clooney's paranoid freakout in the park is a marvelously edited meltdown, and Malkovich has fun with his character's obsessive diction (my favorite line being, "there are over 40,000 dollars in my account" rather than "there is over"...its casual funkiness suggests that the humorless spook counted each dollar individually).

By and large, however, the movie is a lazier, less clever Adaptation metatext: abrogating its narrative responsibilities by winking at its audience. When the CIA chief asks what the point of the preceding nonsense was, and follows up with, "Let's make sure never to do that again," it's a transparent mea culpa from the filmmakers to us. This raises the touchy question of artistic responsibility: given all the difficulty in attaining a big budget, movie stars, and widespread distribution, should those with the keys to the kingdom be bound by duty to try their hardest? I wouldn't go so far as to say yes, but I do think the question's worth considering. There's something almost offensive in the devil-may-care plotting if one cares to get offended.

Which, frankly, I don't. I'm glad I saw the movie, even if the writer/directors basically told me I'd been wasting my time. It had amusing moments and it gave me something to write about. Ultimately, I came, I saw, I shrugged. Apparently, so did the Coens. Though it does raise the question: when they decided to title their finished screenplay Burn After Reading, should they have followed their own advice?


Tony D'Ambra said...

To my mind the Coen Bros. un-merited success has gone to their heads, and they now don't even bother dressing-up their contempt. They have always revelled in social irresponsibility and the passing off of cinematic pastiche with no redeeming value as something important.

Perhaps, a more apt title is Burn After Viewing, or even better Burn Before Viewng.

Unknown said...

I thought it was better than just okay. For me, Malkovich's characterization alone was worth the price of admission.

Joel Bocko said...

Interesting how diverse the reactions are here. Tony d'ambrasa, though I don't share your completely negative view of the Coens (The Big Lebowski is an eternal, beloved favorite of mine and I admired No Country a great deal, though Fargo always struck me as a particularly nasty piece of work), you're onto something in regards to much of their work and certainly, I feel, in regards to "this one" (to quote John McCain).

Tony Dayoub, I too was left cold but haven't seen reason to reconsider as of yet. However, I look forward to reading your reviews along with all the others I generally avoided before seeing it for myself. I can't imagine it would ever belong with Lebowski though, which I have to differ with you on - I consider it a comic masterpiece, possibly the Coens' best (though I'm actually only about 50/50 on seeing their most notable movies), and certainly my favorite.

C. Jerry Kutner, I do feel that Malkovich's hystrionic eloquence (punctuated by liberal "fucks") and the Clooney freakout, however brief, helped me recoup a bit of my investment. Maybe a couple bucks?

Joel Bocko said...

Make it "that one" (preferably with an angry jab), not "this one." Apologies to the Senator.

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