I couldn’t wait to see the new Coen brothers movie, Burn After Reading. Would the quirky Minneapolis-born siblings create a worthy successor to their 2007 multiple Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men?
The theatrical preview was terrific–it hinted broadly that the upcoming film would be a hilarious spy spoof, with snippets of the famous Coen brothers black humor and biting dialogue. And what a cast! Brad Pitt doing a rare comic turn as a dim-witted exercise nut. George Clooney making fun of his Lothario reputation. John Malkovich as a rageaholic CIA agent. Tilda Swinton reprising her Narnia ice queen. And most exciting, there was an enthusiastic Frances McDormand in a major role–might her new character be as unforgettable as her famous pregnant cop in 1996’s Fargo? Oh, yeah, bring it on!
As the Hollywood mantra says, let’s cut to the chase: so far, Burn After Reading is the most disappointing movie of year.
Oh, it starts all right. Starts great, in fact. Accompanied by composer Carter Burwell’s pseudo-grand musical score, the camera dives from the heavens into the center of the movie’s universe, the spic-n-span polished hallways of CIA headquarters in Langley. Agent Osbourne Coxe (John Malkovich, Eragon), sporting a bow-tie and the dissolute visage of a man who’s been reading his own reports for too many years, is being demoted for alcohol abuse. Instead of accepting the lower rank, Coxe quits, his head swarming with plots of revenge.
At home, he greets his none too sympathetic wife, thin-lipped (no welcoming shiny gloss for this hard-hearted gal) Katie Coxe (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton), a pediatrician who hates kids. Her husband’s disgrace is now the excuse Dr. Katie needs to divorce him and wrap a ball and chain around her lover (never mind he’s already married, too) Harry Pfarrer, played with lecherous glee by George Clooney (Michael Clayton). Harry is a former security officer, who’s proud to admit he never had to fire his gun on duty.
His wife is Sandy Pfarrer (Elizabeth Marvel), an author of children’s books, who’s also having an affair. Oddly, despite her career choice, Sandy and Harry have no children. In fact, no one in this movie has any children, or pets, or even any plants that need watering. They are all completely self-absorbed. In real life, you’d like to throw a lighted match at all of them.
While these high-income couples are bed-hopping in ritzy Georgetown, fate is awaiting them across town in a gym among a bunch of lower-income nincompoops. It’s takes only a short fuse to send everyone crashing together like demented billiard balls.
Fifty-year old Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand, Fargo, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) desperately wants four expensive plastic surgeries to reinvent her body into what she thinks she needs to find love in the age of internet dating. One of her dates turns out to be Harry, who’s getting cold feet about his prospects of marital bliss with Dr. Katie. Linda’s gym buddy is the dullest dart on the board, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), whose focus is set on his abs, his headphones, his bicycle and his dreams of making it rich without working too hard. Hovering in the background is the only decent person in the movie, gym manager Ted Teffron (Richard Jenkins, The Visitor), who loves Linda just the way she is. But all the years he spent as an Orthodox priest have made it difficult for him to share his feelings, so he never appears on Linda’s libido radar.
Former agent Coxe has started writing a tell-all book about his exploits in the Balkans. Being a stupid spook, he puts his writing on the same disk as his bank records. So when Dr. Katie swipes the disk to give her divorce attorney the info she’ll need to take him to the cleaners, she also gets his literary meanderings. Alas, the lawyer’s secretary accidentally drops the disk in the women’s locker at the gym. Chad finds the disk and decides it contains top level security secrets that somebody would pay big bucks to get back.
He and Linda attempt to blackmail Coxe, but the wily ex-agent sends Chad packing with a bloody nose. Failing at domestic extortion, Linda and Chad hustle over to the Russian embassy to try their luck with international idiocy, but even the Ruskies aren’t stupid enough to cough up rubles for a worthless disk. Meanwhile, the shenanigans have piqued the interest of CIA officer (David Rasche, TV’s All My Children) and his Supervisor (J. K. Simmons, TV’s The Closer), whose combined cluelessness provides the funniest moments in the film. “Report back to me when it makes sense,” the CIA Supervisor commands.
But he never gets that report since there’s not much intelligence going on anywhere. The whole movie to this point is kind of like the Keystone Kops visit Smarmyville. Then something really awful–and very unfunny–happens in a closet. That’s when I snapped.
For about an hour the movie had been reasonably interesting–not fantastic, but amusing with a few chuckles here and there, thanks mostly to Brad Pitt’s surprisingly goofy performance–and then pow!– the movie took a leap into deadly seriousness. I was so shocked I felt like I’d been hit in the stomach with a baseball bat. I didn’t expect anyone to really get killed in the movie–after all, I thought it was a comedy. And a comedy usually means that people just get threatened with nefarious extinction–they don’t actually die.
I never recovered and the rest of the movie I just sat there watching all these morons do stupid things, including upping the violence ante, which got less funny with each incident. Don’t get me wrong. I love violence in movies just as much as the next movie fan. But I don’t like it coming out of left field. And if someone is going to get knocked off in the story, at least it should be one of the nasty characters and not one of the good guys.
Ken Hanke, reviewer at the Mountain Xpress chided me. “Oh, you just can’t stand it when a likeable character gets killed.” He’s right. And I don’t feel any need to apologize. If you react emotionally to films like I do, you’ll understand. But equally important to consider when evaluating a film is the role of a random killing in the artistic unity of story. For example, the murder of Llewelyn Moss played by Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men was a real shocker, and very unsettling. But No Country was a deadly serious movie from frame one, so the murder of a likeable character was not out of character for the movie itself. Burn is a comedy, albeit a dark one, and for me, the unpredictable murder of a likeable character served only one purpose–shock value–and shock value itself never rates high on my movie meter.
In Burn’s defense, the two men who saw the movie with me liked it. And there are some people who claim to have liked the movie only after the big surprise murder. To each his own.
Bottomline: Burn After Reading is a Coen brothers movie. That means it’s clever, sometimes funny, sometimes thoughtful, but never what you might expect. So see it with those caveats.