“Burn After Reading”: Some Of You Are Idiots

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I am slightly dismayed that there are folks out there who think “Burn After Reading” is a terrible movie. The movie underscored my faith in the Coen Brothers. Who else has their kind of freedom or power? Every year or two, they punch out another movie like clockwork. And it gets to be exactly what they felt like making at the time. Like Ozu, like Scorsese, like Eastwood, like Woody Allen, each film is the latest episode in a series of films that you earnestly hope won’t stop coming until the filmmaker finally pops his clogs.

The Coens remind me of Woody Allen in the Seventies, particularly. He cracked the Hollywood code and created a simple math that studios instinctively understood. If he made a movie budgeted at under X dollars, it was practically guaranteed to profit Y dollars. At best, it’d also win critical acclaim and prestige for the studio. At worst? It wouldn’t jeopardize the career of anybody involved, and the studio would still get to keep all those profits. There are normally guarantees like that in the film industry. Result: he mostly got to make the movies he wanted to make.

(Come on. They let him make “Interiors,” for the love of God. Here was a man who was invisible to the steel claw of focus groups and studio notes.)

I can see why “Burn After Reading” could disappoint some viewers. You sort of struggle to define it before typing in “dark comedy” and promising to replace it with something better later on. I consider the movie to be a document of the Coens’ simple competence in storytelling. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt work at a DC-area gym franchise. George Clooney is a Treasury Department agent. These three people are complete idiots. John Malkovich, a Princeton-educated CIA analyst who lives in a stately Georgetown neighborhood, isn’t an idiot. But his alcoholism, his failing marriage, and his steadily downtrending career cause him to grow increasingly frustrated, angry, irrational, and in search of a smaller dog to kick.

These four characters are tied together in story involving a simple straightforward situation But because they only have 20% of the information apiece, and are largely unaware of each others’ existences, not to mention that they aren’t operating at the full mental capacity available to a normal human…Complications Occur and things quickly get out of hand.

I don’t want to say more, because the pleasure of this movie is in observing events as they happen.

This isn’t a story that most writers and filmmakers can tell. There’s a reason why in so many movies, a character is suddenly diagnosed with cancer. A terminal disease immediately brings every character together and the story gains an automatic Middle and End. Great storytellers can weave a compelling 90 minutes from two people sitting in a restaurant calmly having a meal.

“Burn After Reading” doesn’t have a linear storyline. It actually ends with…

(oh, fine: “spoiler alert,” but it’s not worth it)

…a scene in which characters compare notes, fail to make any sense of what had happened, and ultimately decide that from their own perspective at least it doesn’t really matter anyway.

(see?)

That’s why this is a signature Coen Brothers movie. Competence and confidence. The simple competence of being able to tell a story strictly through the behavior of a collection of characters instead of through a 1-2-3-4-5 connect-the-dots sequence of events. And the confidence to hire the right group of actors and trust that it’ll all work, without second-guessing themselves and sending one of these characters through an MRI machine and then to a meeting with a somber-faced oncologist.

And what a cast. Part of the fun is watching a fantastic cast working against their usual type. “Sexiest Man Alive” George Clooney trolls dating sites for cheap hookups. Brad Pitt couldn’t be a bigger bimbo if he had a pair of DD breast implants. And fans of “Fargo” will have great difficulty hearing Frances McDormand speaking like an utter nincompoop whose understanding of the world seems to have been gleaned exclusively from the movie reviews in “US Weekly.”

Admittedly, John Malkovich is exactly the guy you expect him to be. Hiring him to play a safe, sane and stable person would be like taking a parachute underwater.

I often think about writers and filmmakers and musicians having a “credit score” with my bureau. The currency is the amount of faith I have that a certain project will be great or even good. Some creators rate so low that if the currency were actual money, I won’t loan them $50 if they left behind a $100 bill as collateral. Whereas the Coen Brothers could tell me “Our next movie is going to be a static, 90-minute shot of a bowl of Cheerios getting soggier and soggier over time” and I’d still mark Opening Day on my calendar.

Every film of their underscores my faith in their work. Their next film is “A Serious Man,” to be released on October 2. As always, my excitement about every previous film they’ve made feeds my interest in seeing the next one.

22 thoughts on ““Burn After Reading”: Some Of You Are Idiots”

  1. Great review, I loved this movie. What I love about the Coens is the ability to create a character. Someone that you can love and hate, and empathize in, and loathe all at the same time. Great filmmakers create great characters.

  2. Not the best Coen film, but I was thoroughly entertained. My lesson learned from this movie? The government is watching your every move… and they find you boring.

  3. Couldn’t agree more, and I’m a sucker for well-made, low-budget “two people in a restaurant” films. The Coens’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There” qualifies as such; a couple of my other favorites are “The Big Kahuna”, “The Shipping News”, “Big Night”, and “Prime Gig” (the best-told remake of “Wall Street” I’ve seen).

    Can you suggest any others?

  4. The problem I have with it is…lots of stupid people and nobody I liked. I don’t find stupid people being stupid funny less there’s some redeeming characteristics.

  5. Here’s the thing about a Coen Brothers film. Just when it settles in to what you think is its acceptable level of weirdness, they ramp it up a notch. There’s always another left field idea in the closet to supply an unexpected twist. But this is not random wackiness. It always works within the framework of the story. I will watch almost anything they make, soggy cereal movies excepted. “Burn After Reading” is damn good.

  6. You see, Andy? “It was a stupid movie” and “it sucked.” See? You didn’t need to write those 855 thoughtful words!

    I really enjoyed Burn After Reading. The revelation of Harry’s secret basement contraption is one of the most uproarious sight gags in all of movie history. But it is a savage comedy with savage consequences. The violence, though infrequent, is startlingly vicious. It’s kind of an x-factor ingredient. I’m still unsure if it improves the movie or harms it.

  7. @Jason – (and those of you who haven’t seen the film should stop reading this) – Those little surprises, and the overall sense of disorientation, are part of what make this movie so enjoyable. We know that this movie is partly about spies. We’re sort of programmed to think that Clooney’s “job with the Treasury department” is way more than what he’s letting on and that he’ll be swooping in as the “fixer” who makes the Government’s little problems disappear. So when we find out what he’s really been assembling down there…what an impact!

    Normally, disorientation isn’t something I enjoy as an audience member. But that’s the whole point of this movie. It’s all about people who can only see the two or three squares of the chessboard that are adjacent to their own, and making toweringly stupid paranoid choices as their imaginations run wild.

    I also think that this is probably the most accurate portrayal of government spy agencies — both US and Russian — ever put on film. They speak of huge things in the same tone of voice with which an office manager tells his boss that the wholesaler’s price for toner will be increasing by 11% next month.

  8. @Donald – “Stupid people doing stupid things” is a dangerous concept in the hands of mediocre storytellers. I know where you’re coming from. But I think it really works here. Scratch it all up to good writing and good actors.

    (SPOILERS)

    Brad Pitt hiding in the closet is Funny and Wacky until it totally stops being wacky. George Clooney’s character takes a serious turn towards the tragic; he’s driven to the brink of insanity by paranoia. I don’t think we’re meant to laugh at where either character ends up.

    This is why I have grave problems with nearly any use of the term “dark comedy.” So few movies fit that description. “Burn After Reading” is a drama that uses humor to leaven the tension at specific moments and as a shrewd form of misdirection.

    I ask anybody who’s seen “Burn After Reading”: How did you think the Brad Pitt closet scene was going to pay off? Did you even remotely anticipate it?

    Bingo. That’s why there was so much humor in the movie up to that point.

  9. @Leon – The fact that I respect your point of view is completely separate from the fact that “I would have liked to have burned THIS film after reading!” made me think of Gene Shalit’s reviews on the “Today” show.

    (“I predict that after the next Academy Awards, they’ll be calling this movie ‘Glengary GlenrOSS-CAR!'”)

  10. @Rob – I liked “The Big Kahuna,” though (like Glengary Glenross) it suffered greatly from “Former stage play syndrome.” You could have moved the film sets into any regional playhouse and performed it conventionally. I love movies like “Amadeus” in which they exploited the chance to truly open up the world of the play.

    Great movie, though.

    Bob, a young salesman: Are you saying that I have no character because I’ve never done anything to regret?

    Phil, a burned-out old salesman: I’m saying you’ve already done plenty of things to regret, you just don’t know what they are. It’s when you discover them, when you see the folly in something you’ve done, and you wish that you had it do over, but you know you can’t, because it’s too late. So you pick that thing up, and carry it with you to remind you that life goes on, the world will spin without you, you really don’t matter in the end. Then you will gain character, because honesty will reach out from inside and tattoo itself across your face.

  11. Great article and I greatly appreciate the thoughtful comments on the film (fortunately the thoughtless ones were brief…)

    I haven’t yet seen it, now plan to, and appreciate even more the spoiler alerts. I was able to read enough to convince me while jumping over spoilers.

  12. Andy,

    I too enjoyed this movie. It’s even easier to enjoy when you compare it to the typical junk coming out of Hollywood. Is it as good as Raising Arizona? Of course not, but it’s still a much better movie than the competition.

    When I saw this movie I was amazed to learn that Brad Pitt can act. I had never considered him a good actor. But now I have to ask if he was really acting in “Burn After Reading” or if that is who he really is? Of course it’s possible he’s been a good actor all along, perhaps I have misjudged him.

  13. YES. Someone finally shows this film a little love. Now if I could just get more people on board with Intolerable Cruelty…

  14. I was so annoyed with Brad Pitt’s horrible, over-the-top acting in Burned After Reading that I had to stop watching it. I’ve seen clips of his “Southern accent” in the Inglourious Basterds, and it makes me think he’s overstepped his acting bounds. Sorry Andy, I have to disagree with you on this one. There may have been some witty dialogue, but there are too many things wrong with this movie to be redeemable.

  15. Don’t wish to turn this into IMDb, but if you like the Coen Brothers, you should watch “In Bruges”. It’s not one of theirs but you wouldn’t know it – a chip off the same block; a really dark comedy!

  16. I watched this movie. After wondering why all these stars would sign on to make this mediocre novella of a movie (other than the fact that it was for the Cohen Brothers). I imagined that the film was more about the actors than about the characters. Looking into the subtext I found that it answers a question. Where would these people be if they had not become famous actors? Clooney: a sex-obsessed womanizer. Pitt: a shallow personal trainer. McDermitt: obsessed with her declining looks because she didn’t define her life by something else.
    On the other hand, I could just be trying to fill in the gaps because I was not being entertained as much as I’d expected justifying the work of actors and filmmakers I admire.

  17. Andy I loved Burn After Reading. I laughed 3 times in the movie. Once in the car scene, once at the embassy scene and finally in the penultimate final scene at the CIA. The final scene being the most hilarious. I did chuckle at bits, but those three scenes were LMAO scenes. I still laugh at the movie today because it is so fraked up. I’m not going to pass judgment on those who have seen the movie and did not find it funny, all I’m going to say is “What the f**k did we learn?”

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