Saturday, December 06, 2008


Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, J.K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins
Director: The Coen Brothers
Runtime: 96 min.
Rating: ****
Genre: Thriller, Comedy

        Who says nothing is impossible? I have just sat and stared at nothing, and laughed at it, and immensely enjoyed it.
        As a thumb rule, most intended comedies do not work because they end up going too far at the expense of the characters, and they end up being cruel. But that is because they do not know better. The Coen Brothers do, and they’re cruel by choice. Their gut is brimming with contempt for their characters, and if given a free rein, they might one day create a film whose sole purpose would be to punish stupidity. Wait a minute, they already have. It is called Burn After Reading, and it feels like an assembly of morons where the fun is primarily derived from the manner in which they keep running around in circles with great exuberance, and you look from up above, and snicker at the idiocy on display. The Coen brothers are looking along to, and for them stupidity might be the greatest sin mankind has ever seen. And they punish each of them thus. And they snicker. And you snicker along.
        Now, is it the kind of movie you would want to watch? I’m not sure about you, but I do from time to time, and to have a good laugh at the expense of an idiot. Now since it is a whole bunch of them here, it is decidedly a riot. There’re some moments of that most interesting kind of laugh too, the one which I call the inertia laugh. It is when a shocking moment occurs, and we laugh because we can’t think of any better way to react. The Coen brothers often to me feel like The Joker from The Dark Knight, in that they carefully and expertly construct their mess and then take great pleasure in systematically messing it up, before it feels out of control, and that is when they gather the control to burn it all and shut it down. So, when I say The Coen brothers return to familiar pastures, I mean that it is all a big neatly constructed tangled mess. Oh, don’t for a moment think that by mess I’m in any way implying confusion, because the Coen brothers are masters of narration, if there was one. They might be one of the final words in ultra-efficient and ultra-effective audience manipulation. So, what do they have in store this time around? I’ll only attempt swift short broad strokes here, because part of the great joy of this film is discovery, and I hope you gather nothing more than a mere clue of what you are going to pay your 100 bucks for.
        Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) is a CIA analyzer who has just been removed from his Balkans desk to something domestic, something of low clearance. Sort of like demoted, and that is because he has a drinking problem. His wife, Katie (Swinton) is a child specialist, and is a bonafide bitch. They’re having marital problems so bad a divorce is imminent. She is having an affair with Harry Pfaffer (Clooney), who works down at the treasury, and is happily married to Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), who is an author of children books. I might not be stressing on it too much, but you ought to be paying attention to the names, and how they sound. That is part of the contempt. Harry is secretly a building something in his basement, and I believe that is a part too.
        Now, Harry has an interest in visiting online dating centers, and on one such instance he meets Linda Litzke (McDormand), who works down at a fitness center. One of her colleagues is Chad Feldheimer (Pitt), and he feels like the final word in moronity. And he has something distinct about him too, which for a lack of better description, is the diametric opposite of what you might expect out of his Achilles. Pay attention to what happens to him, and where it happens to him in the end. Signature Coen. Oh, I almost forgot. There’s Tad Treffon (Jenkins), the floor manager down at the fitness center, and he harbors feelings for Linda.
        So it is all a big mess, but I use the word only because I cannot use the word the CIA boss (Simmons) uses, which in the final analysis turns out to be apt. But you might wonder why the CIA boss? Let us put it this way. There’s a case of missing confidential data, for which Chad has a word that turns out be apt, or maybe hammered into being apt. it is a word that doesn’t feel funny the first time around, but the Coens don’t budge, and they keep using the word until it becomes The Word, and strangely it induces a few laughs too. And from then on it is all a case of these blind mice trying to play dice, and then paying the price. Strange are the ways how comedies work.
        The Hollywood Reporter film critic Kirk Honeycutt observes here that, apart from others things, this is a spy film where everything ends badly. I’m not sure, and when we label an ending good or bad, we’re essentially being relative. In Burn After Reading, it is tough to connect with any singular character, save for that feeble thread of attachment you feel your favorite actors. There’s real star power, and there’s real acting prowess here, in Clooney, Pitt, Malkovich and McDormand. In Jenkins and Swinton. I wouldn’t describe their performances, for a large part of the joy a Coen brothers film resides in the idiosyncrasies, and the colorful range of buffoonery the actors are asked to exhibit. Suffice to say, they make you laugh, often like hell, and there isn’t one cast member you would want to be replaced. Of course, overcoming and manipulating the audience right out of that attachment is not a big deal for the Coens. The only guy we laugh with, and not at is J.K. Simmons whose there for a mere five minutes and is given the film’s best moments.

        I hope you have a fair description at your disposal, so that you could make a choice. In many ways, this Coen brothers’ film is its own review. It ought not to be analyzed out of respect, because it doesn’t want to be analyzed. It is an exercise in style, the Coen style, and they are sure to come up with such wonderful nonsense when they’re left to play by themselves. There’re only a couple of intelligent people in there, one of them being the Simmons characters, and the two sit around in the CIA office discussing the spate of matters. They might very well be Joel and Ethan Coen, and how the two CIA guys talk mirrors an awful lot how the Coens have made the film. If it sounds strange, that is the Coens for you. So what is it all? It is one hell of an entertainer that just doesn’t make any sense, and neither is it supposed to. It works precisely the way it is intended to work. You might call that kind of a thing a minor entry in the Coens oeuvre. I would call it the Coens having a little fun for themselves, as they have had in most of their films. No harm whatsoever, considering that they can be considerate by choice too.

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