Friday, January 09, 2009

Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2008) [5]

Every once in a while there is a Coen Brothers film that comes out and falls flat with me. Miller's Crossing had been the best example so far but Burn After Reading may take that title on the mantle. A Coen brothers version of a political thriller, its uneasy mix of humor and dark cynicism never really gel. The story focuses on two nit witted gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) who stumble across what they think is classified information of a CIA analyst (John Malkovich). Eventually the tangled web of failed espionage brings in the analyst's estranged wife (Tilda Swinton), her less than honest lover (George Clooney), and other assorted characters that could only come from a Coen Brothers film. A lot has been made how farcical the story and the characters are, and how much contempt the Coens seem to have for them. Of course it's meant to be a farce and the characters bordering on screwball. I don't find that the problem; unlike some of their other films, there's nothing in these characters that are that memorable or endearing to make them believable. The Big Lebowski may be just as frivolous and messy as this film but it had characters and situations that transcend the simple machinations of its story. This film has some funny moments but it never comes close to making an impact. And unlike the tightly constructed chaos of No Country for Old Men, this feels too loose and cluttered with too many ideas that never gel. The funniest moments may be between the two CIA higher-ups trying to decipher the situation and come to the same realization as the viewers: that we really have no idea what all that just happened meant.

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