The Coens are back on our screens again, and this time it’s a little less bleak… or is it?
Billed as a comedy, BURN AFTER READING which finally opens in the U.K. today is a disjointed and disorientating tale of the haphazard. When pompous secret agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is made redundant he decides to write his memoirs, but when a disc copy of it is found by two losers who work in a gym (Frances McDormand and an almost unrecognisable Brad Pitt) they mistake it for sensitive information and hatch a scheme to use it as their ticket to the big time.
As the web of deceit and confusion expands it draws in pathological liar and sex addict Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and mild-mannered gym manager Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), before spinning out of control into its farcical conclusion.
You can tell that this movie was a side project written at the same time as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.It shares the themes of isolation, loneliness and its complete lack of faith in humanity. Unlike NO COUNTRY, however, BURN AFTER READING decided to put a darkly comic slant on this whole morbid world view: a bold and interesting choice to say the least.
Like THE BIG LEBOWSKI before it, this latest Coen project is focussed on a group of characters at the peripheries of society blundering unknowingly into a world of pain. However, in this instance we are not given time to identify with them through a series of events that slowly expose to us the quirks who make them who they are: BURN AFTER READING is far too bleak and postmodern for that. Instead we are fed the problems of each character at the start: divorce, redundancy, body image issues and a host of other plagues of contemporary western society that are piled on these poor unwitting characters before our eyes. Then we, the audiences, are made to witness these strange characters as they make a series of bad decisions that have increasingly tragic, though admittedly darkly witty, consequences.
The way the movie is pieced together gives no chance of grasping the essences of the people flitting across the screen. Their lives are presented as transitory and fleeting, buffeted by the complicated world around as they struggle even to engage with it – never mind beginning the task of understanding it. This makes for some brutally effective moments both in terms of classic Coen black humour and in terms of the shockingly detached portrayal of violence that they honed so well in their Best Picture Academy Award winning movie last year.
However, it also means the film feels somehow insubstantial and the ending feel both frustrating and inconclusive. This might seem like a negative point, but when you think about the themes being dealt with and the societal traits being lambasted you’ll realise what an intelligent and well-worked piece of film this movie actually is. It communicates the fragmentation and frustration directly to the audience in the most rapid, quirky and all-round interesting way. To make this achievement even more impressive the Coens manage to create this sensation using actors who are household names.
Barring a couple of moments when I felt like the audience reacted to an actor rather than a character (EVERYONE gasped when John Malkovich punched a weedy Brad Pitt in the face) it really seemed as if these insubstantial ghosts of people passing by on screen really were the essence of what’s wrong with the western world. Lacking direction, support or even a basic understanding these people were stuck in an eternal Brownian motion that can’t be sustained: not an easy part for such successful and iconic folk to portray.
Thus my final words to the lovely readers of Obsessed With Film are: Sure BURN AFTER READING is disjointed, fragmented and frustrated. One minute you’re chuckling, the next gasping in shock. But this is not poor workmanship, but actually the Coens continuing at the top of the game. If you banish all thoughts of it being a ‘kooky comedy’ and watch it with these comments in mind I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it.
This article was first posted on October 30, 2008