Just a note to let you know that I saw Burn After Reading last night which, here in the UK, was opening night. You can find my review over in the review section but here it is below…
And so the culmination of around 18 months of obsession ended last night. After over a year of hunting down every little scrap of information and news about the next Coen brothers film, I sat, in the middle of a full house last night to watch their latest offering, Burn After Reading. Running this site is very much a catch 22 situation for me. I love to find out every little nugget of information to share with the readers but, when it actually comes to watching a new Coen brothers movie for the first time it’s a strange feeling. The movie is usually very familiar to me through reading anything and everything and watching every little clip and interview but never in 10 years of running this site has this been more true than of Burn After Reading. Like you, I am a huge Coen brothers fan. First and foremost all I want to do is see their movies and enjoy them time and time again and, on this occasion, my first viewing was blighted by the very fact that I run You Know, For Kids! Honestly, from the first frame I felt that I had already seen the movie which is a real shame. If the past is anything to go by the second viewing will fill me with entirely different feelings. It’s my cross to bear.
Burn After Reading features the typical Coen conceit that people with big plans are usually total fucking idiots- too stupid to pull them off. A whole series of unfortunate events begins with Osbourne Cox (a very swearly and shouty John Malkovich, but then, who swears and shouts better than he?) resigning from his job as a CIA analyst after being told he was being bumped to a lower security desk due to his drinking problem. To Cox, everyone is a moron and this includes his bosses who take the full hit of an f-bomb laden rant – and this is the first two minutes! Irked by this he decides to use this experiences at the CIA to write what he thinks will be an explosive book- his “mem-wahs” as he hilariously and conceitedly refers to it. Now it gets messy – Cox’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) is planning to divorce him to be with US Marshall Harry Pfarrer (an excellent George Clooney) who is also married. Harry seems to be something of a sexaholic. He’s constantly picking up women on internet dating sites and thinks nothing of using tools to enhance his sex life- to wit his purple sex wedge and awesome basement invention.
During the Cox’s divorce proceedings Katie collects all of her husband’s financials (and accidentally- a draft of his “mem-wah”) on a disc which convolutedly winds up being found on the floor of the ladies changing room at Hardbodies gym. It is found by the employees, two of whom decide to use it to gain a reward. The two knuckle-heads in question, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), attempt to blackmail Cox to gain the moneys required to pay for Linda’s battery of cosmetic surgeries. Suffice to say these are the two people with a relatively simple plan without the nous to pull it off. This being Coen Country, things inevitably spiral out of control resulting in blood being spilt (in much the same was as Fargo). In a Coen movie, simple plan is never that simple. The plot strands tangle further still when Linda, looking for love on the internet, ends up dating Harry- the circle is complete – basically everyone is shagging everyone.
For me Clooney stole the show. A lot of people have said that Pitt did it for them but I disagree. While Pitt’s Chad was excellent and very funny, I found Clooney’s Harry to have more interesting characteristics. His obsession with women and sex (and post-coital exercise) while simultaneously being the most insecure man imaginable is a delicious dichotomy. There were two distinct scenes where I had laughing fits and both involved Harry. Skip this next sentence (in grey) if you don’t want to know which two as they’re spoilers- the first was when, after shooting Chad in the head from point-blank range, he ran downstairs to grab a kitchen knife as he wasn’t sure Chad would be dead- never having “discharged his gun in 20 years of service” you see. He’s a moron, like everyone else. The second was when, after an argument with Katie he stormed upstairs to collect his sex wedge thing before leaving. Two truly hilarious scenes that I think stand up to anything else the Coens have ever created.
Special mention must be made of David Rasche and JK Simmons’s performances as the CIA head-honchos. They are totally bemused at everything that is happening especially since the hub of it all, Cox, has such low security clearance. Their final exchange had the whole cinema in stictches.
Remember the sudden, brutal acts of violence in Fargo? Remember how shocking they were when viewed in juxtaposition with the black comedy bookending the scenes? Well this movie contains two very, very shocking scenes of graphic violence, both a little out of the blue. The big, hefty, tough looking guy sat next to me literally had his hand on his mouth in shock when the first happened. The Coens do this a lot. It’s one of their tricks. They make you laugh and then- BAM! – shock you, then make you laugh again. I found the first such event very funny indeed but I am plugged into the Coen sense of humour, my laugh was the only one I heard.
Good though the movie is I have to say that for a comedy it was very light on laughs for about the first 45 minutes though it made up for it as the plot gathered momentum.
I’ve read a lot about how this movie is throw away and a let down following the Oscar winning triumph of No Country For Old Men but this is, to my mind, a nonsense. Sure this movie will never make anyone’s top ten movies of all time and maybe not even their top ten Coen brothers movies but is that such a bad thing? I think the reason this movie has garnered sporadic negativity is simply because the Coens have set the bar so ridiculously high for themselves. For me this movie can sit happily in the little sub section of their movies including the likes of Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty (the latter two of which have always been unfairly lambasted). There’s no possibility of this movie being mentioned in the same breath as Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, Fargo or No Country For Old Men on a purely qualitative level. But that is not the point. Is it a fun movie? Was the whole crowd laughing uproariously at times? Were the performances good? Was the dialogue up to scratch? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Burn After Reading is a good movie, not great or brilliant, just plain old good. Because it is not great, certainly not as great as other Coen offerings does that mean it is devoid of merit?
Go see it for yourself but don’t expect Citizen Kane or The Godfater, or even Fargo- expect to be entertained for 90 minutes and you won’t be disappointed. I’m gonna go see it again!