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People give the Coen Brothers way too much credit. Sure they make good films on the odd occasion, but, after dazzling everyone with the exhausting and nihilistic No Country for Old Men, they belched out this Washington DC-based trifle, and still people acted like it was the second coming of Allah, Buddha and Abbott and Costello.
There are Coen Brothers comedies that I have enjoyed, especially Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, but this is certainly not one of them. In fact, I find it pretty much devoid of humour for something being marketed as a comedy.
I had similar issues with Fargo back in the day, which was lauded to the high heavens by all and sundry, but left me cold, colder than a Minnesotan winter. The humour was invisible to me, the purpose as well, though I have gotten to a better place emotionally where I don’t actively hate the film anymore.
Still don’t like it, though. And I definitely didn’t like Burn After Reading either, which has practically nothing to recommend it. Honestly, this is one of those times where I am oblivious as to what worth others see in something. Had the Coens not made it, had the cast not be the usual A-List shmucks like Clooney and Pitt, this flick would not have even gone straight to DVD.
Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is a miserable, alcoholic CIA analyst downgraded from his position to something lesser, compelling him to quit. He threatens to write his memoirs outlining his war against not the Soviets but against the idiots who have plagued his existence. People don’t line up around the block in anticipation.
His wife (Tilda Swinton) is a stone cold bitch who has, for me, the only funny moment in the whole film, when she threatens a child with harm at her place of work. She is itching to get rid of Osbourne whilst having an affair with a sex-obsessed federal Marshall (Clooney) at the same time. She is advised to get a copy of all of Osbourne’s financial information, and accidentally gets a copy of his memoirs for her troubles.
The memoirs, mentioning the CIA and the Russians and such, fall into the hands of two morons who work at a gym called Hardbodies. One of the morons is played by Brad Pitt, who plays the role of a moron with eerie believability. The other moron is played by Frances McDormand, who moronically believes that the ‘explosive’ data contained on a CD will be worth enough money from either Osbourne, the Russians, or perhaps Oprah that she’ll be able to afford the multiple cosmetic surgeries she craves in order to stave off the physical effects of aging for another year or two.
Amidst all of this, coincidence, happenstance and bad luck contrive to render various people either in worse positions than they started off in, dead, or somehow better off, for no real reason discernible to any character in the flick.
The story tries to give a sense that life in Washington DC might be a bit strange because of the number of people working in both government and in the ‘clandestine services’ community. Everyone is watching someone and is in turn being watched by someone else. But no-one should mistake, as I did, this alleged ‘comedy’ as being about espionage or the various intelligence agencies.
The flick’s main two points are that everyone’s fucking around on someone, if not multiple people, and that morons either get their comeuppance or score beyond their wildest dreams just for having been involved in something completely tangential to the actual intelligence community.
For all the actors involved, I’m sure they probably had a lot of fun, but I certainly didn’t have any, watching them go through the motions. Of all of them Clooney probably plays a character completely unlike most characters he generally plays (zero charm, sleazy beyond belief and all fidgety), but is no more likeable or interesting because of it.
I was annoyed by almost everyone in this, and found few moments that were believable. Much of the acting, especially Frances McDormand, who is lucky enough to be married to one of the Coen Brothers, is especially irritating, overplaying her idiotic character to the point where I thought I was watching an episode of Who’s Line Is It Anyway?, the improvisational comedy show that they torture suspected terrorists with at Guantanamo Bay.
Pitt plays a moron very well, but since I find him pretty dumb in everything from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to Mr & Mrs Smith to Meet Joe Black to anything he does, the fact that he’s deliberately playing a moron here doesn’t really make a noticeable difference to my appreciation of his performance or him in general.
About the only character that made any sense to me was the section chief or some kind of high up in the CIA who gets briefed a few times about the various shenanigans that are transpiring in his ‘domain’. Played with aplomb by J.K. Simmons, who’s most famous for playing newspaper mogul J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies, he plays a director with no problems making bodies disappear, who epitomises the ruthless efficiency of the CIA in cleaning up its own mistakes.
Except, in this case, the CIA had nothing to do with anything, and he himself isn’t sure what’s happened or why they’ve had to get involved. We never get to understand why either. And if he doesn’t know, and we don’t know, and the Coen Brothers can’t tell us, then what was the goddamn point?
The other problem, for me, is that he’s only in it for 30 seconds, and he plays a bored bureaucrat the way everyone else plays whatever they’re playing in a fairly bored or boring way.
So much of the film, from the melding of “adult” sex farce crap with paranoid 3 Days of the Condor type stuff, to letting McDormand shamelessly mug the screen at every opportunity just grated on me from beginning to end.
There was just nothing there for me, and I am mystified, truly, as to why people rated this flick through the roof. I have loved the Coen Brothers for decades, but that doesn’t mean everything they do works for me. Their failures are often as disappointing as they are baffling, and I find them, as with The Man Who Wasn’t There or Intolerable Cruelty, to be cold film experiments with nothing in it for the audience bar idle curiousity.
I’m more than happy for them to make flicks that don’t work in some fair ratio between their flicks that do work, as in, maybe two Burn After Readings or Ladykillers for every No Country for Old Men. It’s only fair. You’ve got to pay your dues in this life. And for the Coen Brothers, I am willing to cut them ample slack for the films they have made that I have absolutely adored and think are modern masterpieces.
Of course, none of that makes Burn After Reading any less irritating to sit through or pointless to watch for me. In fact I’d go as far as to say it is one of the film’s they’ve made that I liked the least and am most amazed by in terms of the critical fawning. That Kool-Aid must be damn tasty. Sure, I’ll grant that the individual bits of characterisation and stunt-casting create some amusing moments, but nowhere near enough to justify the time or the expense or to get it anywhere near creating a cohesive whole.
Which reminds me: about the only element of the film I thought they got absolutely right was the length. 90 minutes with this was more than enough. Any longer and I would have started an insurgency to take back the cinema from the forces of banality.
4 ways in which Burn After Watching would probably be a more apt title out of 10
“Osbourne Cox? I thought you might be worried... about the security... of your shit.” – Burn After Reading.