Thursday, October 2, 2008

Review: Burn After Reading


Tell me, dear readers, do you like the Coen brothers? Are you a fan? Have you seen all of their movies except for Crimewave? Did you rejoice when they won their Academy Award last year? Since you've seen all of their films, does that mean you know what to expect from a Coen film? Yes? Then let me tell you, dear reader, you will enjoy their latest film,
Burn After Reading.

Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt are fitness trainers who accidentally come across some potentially sensitive material belonging to CIA analyst John Malkovich, who's married to Tilda Swinton who's having an affair with George Clooney who's dating Frances McDormand through on online dating service. McDormand and Pitt attempt to engage in extortion against Malkovich and things escalate and things happen. To give anything more away would be absolutely criminal.

The themes of misunderstanding and idiocy are paramount to the Coen brothers. In practically every film they've ever made, a misunderstanding leads to the chaos and hilarity of the plot. On top of that, not very many characters they've written are, let's be honest, very bright. They're ambitious but moronic, and combined with the initial and subsequent misunderstandings, the Coen brothers craft pseudo-film noir, pseudo-gangster films, and with this new movie, pseudo-spy thrillers.

Most of the characters in
Burn After Reading have some sort of tangential relation to spying or the government or intelligence, but that doesn't mean any of them are intelligent. A misunderstanding of what the sensitive materials are leads to more misunderstanding of who's tailing who and who's f*%&ing who.

Just like all of their other movies, the humour doesn't necessarily come from the situation, but rather from the characters. The result is a more dry humour, but nonetheless extremely funny. So it's no surprise that the Coens fill their film with A-list actors such as George Clooney (his third collaboration with the Coens) and Brad Pitt. They also fill the supporting roles with absolutely astonishing performances from J.K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins, and David Rasche. Everybody in this movie works their way around the Coens' dialogue with aplomb and skill, creating a rich tapestry of hilarious characters with little or no intelligence.

The little complaints I did have with the film are superficial, but still important to the overall enjoyment of the film. I've been spoiled previously in that the Coens work with cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is -in a word- amazing. In this film, they break from the standard and go with Emmanuel Lubezki, the Oscar nominated cinematographer of
Children of Men and Sleepy Hollow. The result is a toned down, flat looking gray Washington DC, and it's missing that bright liveliness of the Deakins-era Coen films. The other problem is the overly percussive score from Carter Burwell. According to Wikipedia, they sought to replicate another score from a political thriller from the fifties, but instead of being a clever allusion (that practically no one will pick up on), it's oppressing and distracting.

However, these complaints do little to diminish my overall enjoyment of the film. Perhaps on DVD the film will look better. The other problem I had was a small mark on the lower right hand of the screen, as if there was a coffee-ring on the lens of the projector. The print itself looked dirty, too, like it had been lying under my bed for a week and a half. But I can't blame the film for that.

Regardless of projection issues,
Burn After Reading is a great anti-spy thriller, a great comedy and a great showcase for some talented acting. I really liked this movie and I would definitely watch to see this screenplay nominated for Best at the Oscars. Here's hoping!

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