I was afraid this was going to happen. Initially I was excited about Burn After Reading - I heard it was a CIA story of mystery and intrigue, directed by the Coen brothers and starring an A-list cast. But as time ticked closer to its release date, I started to get an unsettling feeling that this movie wasn't going to be nearly as good as I had hoped. Unfortunately, the Coen brothers' latest attempt is little more than an unfunny "in-joke" that the rest of us are not let in on.
Burn After Reading
Writer/Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton
After their Best Picture-winning No Country For Old Men from last year, it's obvious that the Coens wished to tackle some less serious subject matter for their next picture. Who could blame them? No Country was one of the most bleak films I can remember in a while, but it was also a really good movie - something that Burn After Reading didn't even try to achieve. This farce never gave the audience anyone to care about, any protagonist to pull for. Every character was unlikeable, every joke fell flat, and every coincidence was far-fetched. I believe this was billed as a black comedy, but I didn't find it funny at all. Perhaps it was because of the prepubescent girls behind me in the theater shriek-cackling (shrecackling?) any time Brad Pitt opened his mouth. Perhaps it was the presence of Tilda Swinton, who always makes my spine tingle (not in a good way). Or perhaps it was because the movie just kind of sucked overall.
It's hard to call the acting into question when the writing was so bad - that's like being pissed at the mailman for bringing you your cable bill. They were just conduits, trying to breathe some life into characters so stupid and poorly conceived that it makes you cringe just thinking about. Brad Pitt's character, the aptly named "Chad," was the biggest imbecile of the bunch, with his awful haircut and childlike behavior. He was painfully stupid. Malkovich appeared and then disappeared for most of the movie, drinking and heaving obscenities left and right. Clooney was a pathetic sex-crazed government agent, unhappily married and a frightengly one-dimensional cracked pillar trying to hold this film on his back. Sorry George, maybe next time. Frances McDormand, who I generally like, was the one character that I didn't have a huge problem with; even she was an unlikeable internet dater whose only real concern in life was obtaining money for plastic surgery.
Technically speaking, the lighting was solid and the camera work was nothing out of the ordinary. But the score was really off-putting to me - it relied on periodic drum build-ups that would lead nowhere. Epic music set to mundane activities is one thing, but epic music leading up to nothing is something else entirely. I understand there was probably some significance they had in mind, but I felt like I was watching a recent M. Night Shyamalan movie - it was like the directors had good intentions and a loftier vision for it, but the execution was so bad that it just makes you feel sorry for everyone involved. OK, not everyone. Maybe just the crew members. The cast is laughing all the way to the bank right now.
Plot-wise, it was reminiscient of The Big Lebowski (a Coen classic), only in that there were so many nonsensical stupid things intersecting at once that the audience almost can't follow all of the reasoning and rationale for the characters' actions. But the difference is that we (the audience) took the journey with The Dude in Lebowski - we were along for the ride and were as clueless as he was the whole time. The Dude was a laid-back stoner, sure, but he had an intelligence and zest for life that was endearing and allowed us to look past his bumbling actions. In Burn After Reading, we were more insulted at the stupidity of the characters, making them extremely hard to relate to unless you yourself are a blithering idiot.
My favorite part of the film was the far-too-short appearance of J.K. Simmons as a CIA upper level bureaucrat. His unaffected, unemotional responses to the events that transpired in the film mirrored my own as an audience member, and his final assessment of the movie ("What did we learn today? Never to do this again.") is great advice that I hope the directors follow when thinking about their next few choices for films. Until next time...