Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
viewed: 09/13/08 at AMC Bay Street 16, Emeryville, CA

The latest film from the Coen brothers is a comedy, a film that many are noting as a “lighter” follow-up to No Country for Old Men (2007), their heavier, though arguably no less dark, more “serious” film, for which they won Best Picture at the Oscars.  It’s more in the vein of Intolerable Cruelty (2003), another of their George Clooney films, a much more mainstream-feeling comedy, nowhere as strange or Baroque as Barton Fink (1991) or The Big Lebowski (1998).

It’s a morality tale of sorts, or perhaps more of an immorality tale.  John Malkovich, who is totally stellar and hilarious in this film, as a mid-level CIA desk jockey whose world is falling apart, pivots the film around his angry rant and attack on the people who have made his world miserable, a “league of morons”, I think he says.  And that’s it.  Everyone is more or less a moron, except perhaps the highest ranking CIA man we see, J.K. Simmons in a great cameo, who approaches these tribulations, which end up with several deaths, with the motto of the film’s title, and he has the corpses burned.  It’s a lot of sound and fury and patheticism equalling nothing that can’t be swept under the rug.

The nice guys get whacked.  Motivation, less than greed, is the simply money needed for plastic surgery, unneeded plastic surgery, for characters too myopic to see what is right in front of them.  It’s cynical, sure.  But it’s pretty funny, too.

Malkovich is the best, as good as he’s been since Being John Malkovich (1999).  Frances McDormand works herself hard for her role, but is too much.  Brad Pitt is amusing, a caricature.  Clooney handles his bit okay.  And Tilda Swinton is icier than her Ice Queen she plays in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005).  It’s relatively light, though not necessarily fluffy, and perhaps its lightness belies its darkness, its cynical anti-humanism.  After all, we are all morons.

I enjoyed it, more so than Intolerable Cruelty.  Maybe they should slow back down to their earlier pace of a movie every couple of years rather than pumping them out as they have been in the last decade.  Maybe they need to percolate ideas rather than flash fry them.  Still, it’s worth seeing.

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