DVD Review: Burn After Reading
Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers’ follow-up to the flawless No Country for Old Men is a strange little movie. As a comedy (albeit a dark one), in many ways it’s the opposite of No Country, but both films share a pretty bleak view of human nature, and like many Coen Brothers films, it has bursts of shocking violence. It also boasts a cast that is, to use the cliché, star-studded, and everyone involved is doing great work. Combined with a deliciously black tone and its theme of peoples’ inherent greed and stupidity (a subject near and dear to my own cynical heart), Burn After Reading should be a minor classic. And yet somehow, it's strangely inert, and just never quite comes together.
While I know many people and critics really didn’t care for it, I wouldn’t call Burn After Reading a bad movie, just...odd. (I actually found it such a strange experience that I watched it again the following day, and found myself enjoying it far more than I did initially.) The comedy in Burn After Reading comes more from tone, but the movie isn’t really laugh-out-loud funny, though I did titter like a schoolgirl in many parts, particularly on the second viewing, and I had an evil grin on my face for much of its running time. The music, for example, is so hilariously overblown and serious – as if you were watching a “real” spy movie – that it perfectly underscores the petty silliness of what's happening on the screen.
One of the issues many people seem to have with Burn After Reading is that none of the characters are sympathetic (I actually tend to quite enjoy movies like that, but that's largely due to my own misanthropic tendencies); they’re all bad people or just plain stupid, or both. George Clooney is a scumbag sex addict who cheats on everyone, even his mistress; Brad Pitt is an dim, annoying douchebag; Frances McDormand is superficial, self-involved and oblivious; John Malkovich is an arrogant jerk; Tilda Swinton is an ice queen who, at the beginning, seems like the worst of the bunch, but by the end she seems like the least shitty person, because unlike all the other characters, she seems to have her shit at least somewhat together. Clooney and Pitt are playing so against type that if you’re interested in the movie because you think they’re glamorous and sexy movie stars, you will probably be disappointed. Clooney in particular is doing some impressive work as a sleazebag who tries to be charming – it’s like a great actor pretending to be a bad actor, and I’m sure it’s harder than it looks. Pitt is fantastic here, and his performance reminded me of an Esquire column I read years ago, I think shortly after Ocean’s Eleven came out, that basically argued that he’s an incredibly funny comedic character actor trapped in a screen idol’s body, and if you haven’t seen True Romance (another personal fave) or any other movies where Brad Pitt gets to be hilarious, Burn After Reading is worth checking out just for that.
One thing I really appreciated about the movie is that it has fun (granted, very mean-spirited fun) with the way that a lot of people nowadays behave as if they’re in a movie. Not literally, of course, but movies and TV shows have impacted the way we think the world works, in a lot of ways. McDormand’s and Pitt’s characters act like they’re in a spy film, and a lot of the humour and absurdity in their subplot involves their illusions about what espionage is like crashing against the far less sexy reality. They’re basically just trying to do things they’ve seen in movies, and none of it works, at all. Burn After Reading is a comedy for people who find themselves thinking from time to time about how much people suck. (Like me.) It’s a mean little movie about small, petty people doing small, petty things, only they all think their actions are grandiose and important.
All of this sounds overwhelmingly positive, I realize. But Burn After Reading, for all my gushing, is certainly flawed. It’s just that I really can’t articulate what those flaws are. Something about the film just doesn’t connect or gel the way, on paper, it feels like it should. It’s just weirdly…off in a way that I can’t really put my finger on. I feel like I appreciated it more than I actually liked it. All the pieces are here – and then some – but the final product somehow manages to be less than the sum of its very impressive parts. Burn After Reading isn’t a bad film by any means, but considering the talent involved, it’s a curious disappointment.
I don’t like to make presumptions about the motives of other people, especially other people as talented as the Coen Brothers, but their participation in the slight featurettes on this DVD (and others, like The Big Lebowski) doesn’t suggest an actual aversion on their parts to doing interviews and stuff for DVDs. But for whatever reason, Coen Brothers discs tend to be pretty spare, and Burn After Reading is no different. Two of the three featurettes are barely five minutes (one is just about how Clooney and the Coens like working together, the other, an ostensible making-of feature, is less than six minutes long). The most interesting (and, at over 10 minutes, the most substantial) is ‘D.C. Insiders Run Amok,’ about the actors and their characters, and it’s pretty fun stuff.
Labels: Big Lebowski, Coen Brothers, comedy, DVD review