Week 40: Burn After Reading

MPAA#: 44448
Showtime: 9:35
Ticket price: 10.99
Seat: lower right
Shotgun: Mare
Attendance: about 18
Weather: clear, cool
Food: Dr. Pepper, mini chocolate bars
Expectations: moderate
Met?: yes
Pre-show ads: Hyundai, Telus
Trailers: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Blindness, Passchendaele

Joel and Ethan Coen have made some of the best movies released within my lifetime, and I have been following them with interest since their low-budget beginnings. Twenty-five years later, they are still exploring much of the same material and themes, placing ordinary people into situations where they are way out of their depth. Even when those characters are committing crimes, we sympathize with their hapless efforts to escape; the crimes they commit are often rooted in temptations that any of us might experience.

I am hesitant to say that the Coens have started to repeat themselves. Did Hitchcock repeat himself? Does Scorsese? Of course. When your filmmaking career is long enough, you are bound to return to familiar ground and see if your views have evolved. That is what the Coens did last year with No Country For Old Men, a thematic twin to their early film Blood Simple, and it was a welcome change after a few less inspired efforts. Burn After Reading is not as accomplished as No Country, but it is a pretty good film and it bears more than a slight resemblance to the Coens’ other most famous film, Fargo.

Burn After Reading is the tale of a CIA agent called Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who is abruptly terminated from the agency due to a drinking problem, leaving him to write his memoirs at home. Meanwhile, his wife (Tilda Swinton) carries on an affair with a former bodyguard (George Clooney) and is advised by her lawyer to collect information about her husband’s financial situation before filing for divorce. A disc of Cox’s computer files (including the memoirs) is accidently left by a legal clerk at Hardbodies, a nondescript gym where aging trainer Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) recruits her dim coworker Chad (Brad Pitt) to help her blackmail Cox. Naturally, things go very wrong as the amateurs fool the experts just enough for people to get hurt.

Burn After Reading is a mid-level Coen Brothers movie, on par with Raising Arizona or The Hudsucker Proxy. It has some memorable moments, some delicious darkness, and the usual assured direction and fine performances; but the whole picture does not rise above the sum of its parts. The opening setup takes too long to get moving, and as amusing as J.K. Simmons is, both of his scenes as the CIA director represent one of the gravest screenwriting sins: telling the audience what happens instead of showing them.

So, a wink and a tap of the nose to the Coens for a good but flawed effort down this road that they have taken before. Hopefully they will learn from it for next time.

Crowd reaction at end of movie: none
Weird credit(s): what is a Graphite Operator?
Credit cookie?: no
For further consideration: watch for Dermot Mulroney and Claire Danes, coming soon to a theatre near you.
Opening next week: Quarantine; Body of Lies; RocknRolla; City of Ember; Happy-Go-Lucky
Hoping for: Happy-Go-Lucky

About Scott M

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1 Response to Week 40: Burn After Reading

  1. Chris W says:

    I mostly agree with the “mid-level” comment. I enjoyed the film, and I will no doubt pick it up on DVD when it comes out, to add to my Coen Bros collection, but it didn’t quite hit the high notes of stuff like Lebowski or Fargo. It was a fun movie to watch though, and miles above The Ladykillers, their worst film by far, so I came away happy.

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