It seems a lot like outright perversity on the part of the Coen Brothers to follow the comparatively dour NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN with the lightweight BURN AFTER READING. Lest anyone think that the universal acclaim for their 2007 masterpiece went to their heads, the insanely prolific Coens churned out their next project, an entirely disposable comedy starring a couple of the hugest stars on the planet, right quick. That’s just demented. I mean, these guys are legitimate rascals, which has to be admired. But a moment of pity for the unfortunate layman who wandered into the theater looking for the next NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, hoping to get a jump on their office Oscar pool by handicapping the next fall’s prestige pictures. This was so not that.
Summarizing the movie’s set-up and follow-through is headache-inducing and ultimately pointless — even irrelevant — but nonetheless here it goes:
In BURN AFTER READING, John Malkovich plays a less-than-brilliant CIA analyst who is fired for being a drunk, and decides to write his memoirs. George Clooney plays a less-than-brilliant agent in a different department, a dinner-party-acquaintance of Malky’s. Tilda Swinton plays Malky’s uptight wife, with whom Clooney is having an affair.
Brad Pitt (wearing Clint Howard’s hairstyle from THE WRAITH), Frances McDormand, and Richard Jenkins play less-than-brilliant health club employees. McDormand loves Clooney; Jenkins loves McDormand. McDormand and Pitt find the CD containing Malky’s memoirs and decide to blackmail him.
In my humble opinion, the entire thing is just a two-hour set-up for a big ol’ cosmic joke, the punchline of which is matter-of-factly delivered by the wonderful character actor J.K. Simmons. Think it all sounds like one long riff on the impenetrability of the plots of modern-day spy thrillers, like THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM? That’s my take on it, at least.
So no, an essential addition to the Coens’ filmography, it may not be. Worth your two hours, I think it very much is. BURN AFTER READING is very much in the Coen tradition. Actually, they seem to have a couple different traditions going. Here I’m referring to the tradition wherein they mischievously wreak anarchy all over a specific movie or even an entire genre. Take arguably their most popular movie, THE BIG LEBOWSKI. There’s almost nothing that hasn’t been said or re-said about that movie, except I haven’t heard the following observation too often: THE BIG LEBOWSKI is a full-on wedgie leveled upon the hallowed-classic boxer shorts of THE BIG SLEEP.
THE BIG SLEEP is of course the Raymond Chandler adaptation of a Phillip Marlowe mystery, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and if you haven’t seen it already, you would be far better served watching that for the first time than even by reading my words (hard as it is to believe!). Why watch such an old movie? For one thing, the Coens obviously did! What’s the connection to our beloved LEBOWSKI? Hmmm, a story about a Los Angeles outsider who is hired by a questionable rich gent to serve as a private investigator in a case that gets more labyrinthine by the chapter break – along the way getting involved with his crafty daughter, running afoul of the proper law, and so on…
THE BIG LEBOWSKI directly emulates and then impishly departs from the model of THE BIG SLEEP. With both movies, the twists and turns of the story are hard to follow, nearly impossible, but the dialogue is so enjoyable that you hardly notice. The mystery itself is basically incidental – it’s all about the characters. I was so lucky when I first saw THE BIG LEBOWSKI in 1998 – since by chance, I had just seen THE BIG SLEEP two weeks before. It’s really worth doing, just to get all the film-geek in-jokes that those rascally Coens obviously intended. For example, the bit in THE BIG LEBOWSKI where the Dude shades in Jackie Treehorn’s notepad and gets a surprise is so much funnier after seeing a similar detective tactic used to much more straight-faced effect in THE BIG SLEEP.
But I digress. THE BIG LEBOWSKI may have started out as a satirical exercise, but it became transcendent. The Marlowe riff is only part of its appeal. As I thought as I first watched those bowling-alley-neon end credits rolling ten years ago, “I could’ve watched that all day.” Seventeen years later, I’m still not tired of it. The idea of BURN AFTER READING, I suspect, had similar origins – to do to the spy thriller what they did to the film noir, i.e. to bugger it raw. But I didn’t sense quite the same spark of invention. It’s nowhere near as quotable, and by the way why couldn’t John Goodman have played one of those Russians? So if I’m still re-watching BURN AFTER READING the way I routinely watch THE BIG LEBOWSKI in ten years, I’ll recant. But I’ll probably still be chuckling at Jackie Treehorn’s dick drawing.
Look, I think any true student or practicioner of film is well-served by checking out everything the Coens do. But impeccably staged and acted as it is, BURN AFTER READING is hardly urgent, and probably even plays more than a little annoying to the casual viewer. And I sincerely doubt that the Coen Brothers care one bit about such evaluatory sentiments, and are instead already maniacally, awesomely, cackling internally while hard at work on their next project.
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