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.
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.