Sunday, September 28, 2008

Burn After Reading (2008)

Burn After Reading is a film so obvious that it is sly, the kind of comedy that operates on a plane not dissimilar from a hebetative kitchen sink melodrama or nonstop scare-a-minute horror picture. As a comedy, it shares with Joel and Ethan Coen's The Ladykillers the characteristic of having characters that seem to belong to a live action cartoon with over-the-top people doing over-the-top things (unlike Raising Arizona, for instance, which was just about entirely a live action cartoon). What makes Burn After Reading sly, however, is what it means as the newest Coen film, a kind of natural progression made whole from their very first feature film, Blood Simple, to now. In that caliginous Texas noir, Ray and Abby found their own extramarital transgression directly leading to Julian Marty's unleashing of beastly, sweaty malevolence personified by Loren Visser. In Raising Arizona, the proverbial Pandora's box is opened by H.I. and Ed, whose selfishness and egocentricity allow for sheer madness to ensue, the brunt of which is gradually visited upon them. Jerry Lundegaard's inept schemes and delusions of grandeur culminate in nothing but misery, despair and horror for those he thinks he loves, or at least is supposed to; in Fargo, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud represent the untamed id doubtless residing within Jerry. Their evil is not mitigated by Jerry's culpability, but it does comprehensively, and almost mathematically, complement his weasely, rakish desperation and venality. Llewelyn Moss rings the dinner bell for the one-man scourge of peccancy and callousness, Anton Chigurh, when he steps beyond the natural circumscriptions of his ontic life in the Coens' culmination of thematic delving and artistic growth, their Rosetta Stone opus, No Country for Old Men.

What makes Burn After Reading markedly different from these pictures, however, is the utter banality in which the Coens soak their characters. Chad Feldheimer, played with rambunctious frivolity by Brad Pitt, and Linda Litzke, given life by a mopey, self-esteem-starved Frances McDormand, are so base, so moronic that their evil almost goes beyond banality, into a kind of cinematic statement that makes all of those spiritually forlorn guests on “The Jerry Springer Show” seem almost understandable. Which is not to suggest that Chad and Linda are so self-immolating, or perhaps more importantly, so uninteresting as countless people seen on that or other such shows—just that they are in their respective ways as shallow and thickheadedly self-interested as anyone who has ever gone through the Coen universe. And it is, importantly, their misdeed that catapults most of the action of this screwball comedy that hits one like a screwdriver and boundlessly ricochets like a rubber ball.

The Coens have always been pugnacious in their clear disdain for the trappings of acceptance and the possible compromise that that may bring. Frequently labeled as misanthropic or nihilistic by their more passionate or in certain cases malapert detractors, with Burn After Reading they seem more readily accepting of the scorn, creating characters that are so ill-tempered, obnoxious and almost ridiculously harebrained that the picture seems to almost giddily supply those critics with more ammunition with which to fire at the writing-directing brothers. What many of these detractors seem to either ignore or not understand is that the Coens have a singular ability to hypostatize their greatest thematic interests and most vital concerns. The oft-repeated criticism of their characters behaving in ways dictated by the self-evidently deontic philosophical underpinnings of their pictures, enlarged with ornamental idiosyncrasies and often bizarre peculiarities, betrays a basic misreading of their art. No great empathetic author can hate his or her characters, and the Coens display an unabated love for their inventions in all of the cumulatively astonishing, merest detailed etchings that they so magnificently produce.

Men who detested their characters would not allow them to shine as brightly as this, no matter how despicable many of their actions may be. Easily the most tender figure in their latest, the ineffectual but earnestly well-meaning gym manager, Ted Teffron (Richard Jenkins), stands out as a counter-persona to the multiple ciphers like Chad, Linda and most resoundingly George Clooney's pathological tomcat, Harry Pfarrer. His bitterly sad unrequited love for Linda is nothing short of heartbreaking, made all the more dissatisfying in its futility when the purblind Linda remains completely oblivious to his comments. A woman determined to superficially improve her body through multiple surgeries, her desire to extract a princely sum through blackmailing a former CIA agent named Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is heightened by the unnecessary “need” for surgery money.

Malkovich's performance is perfectly in his wheelhouse. His incendiary temperament, caked over by a vicious, imposing demeanor, recalls past Malkovich turns, but he's so naturally efficacious in the role that one becomes almost wholly appreciative of the veteran actor's efforts. He plays Osbourne as the smartest and most justifiably self-righteous disgruntled CIA man. He's arrogant and angry, a once-dutiful soldier whose exhaustion in the face of profluent inanity, which by its nature swallows him whole, leaving him with the half-delusional ambition to work on his memoirs. His is a more sensible character arc, and its stinging keenness along with the frigid and domineering iciness of his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), stands as a faintly realistic counterpoint to the more unintentionally cutting attributes of the other characters. One of his most puissant lines comes in his first scene as he receives awful news. Told by a colleague that he suffers from a drinking problem, he turns the tables: “Fuck you, Peck, you're a Mormon, next to you we all have a drinking problem.” Note the greater emphasis, capsulized by this one line, made broad—in many ways, both thematically and stylistically with characterization—on “we all have a... problem...” It's an excellent forewarning that this is the most pervasively quotidian examination of the intricacies of a fallen world the brothers have offered—the bare quintessence of their cinema—and as such, in many ways, the most bleak and depressing.

Where Burn After Reading may not optimally succeed is, interestingly, in its comic aspirations. Asseverating a certain free-wheeling cinematic demeanor, this is a film that truly takes its time to get rolling, the humor derived as it is from madcap scenarios as anything. By the time Chad meets Osbourne in a car, however, the snowball effect amasses a certain high-pitched funniness, especially as Pitt enjoys his finest scene, playing a dummy trying to act a specific part. The Coens' greatest weakness may be their comic broadness, their at times gleefully, ebulliently peerless ability to twist just about line, word, physical appearance into something distinctly funny (Chad's spiky, frosted hair; Harry's... harry beard; Osbourne's round, shiny egghead perfectly capturing the man's supposed sagacity), their precocious but occasionally far-out preciousness (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers were most negatively impacted by this trait). There are many wonderful, over-the-top sequences and outrageous character back-stories and oddities in films ranging from Raising Arizona to Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski to No Country for Old Men. Much of the incongruence of Burn After Reading's humor may stem from its lack of transparent beckoning for laughs. Carter Burwell's score is somberly suspenseful, like a standard spy thriller, never issuing a single comic note. Emmanuel Ubezki's crisp, autumnal cinematography is likewise muted and tinged with chilly darkness. Joel and Ethan Coen allow the situations and characters to provoke the laughs.

J.K. Simmons plays an unnamed CIA supervisor who, with another analyst of the agency, represents a kind of chorus, remarking on the insanity and insensibility of the twisting, surprisingly complex and multi-threaded story, which coils around itself. Simmons' character has no idea what is going on, and that is one of the points. The Coens give Linda and Chad the opportunity to inspire hellfire with their wanton disregard for their own actions. By the time the film is finished, the picture makes less sense than ever. All that is certain is bad choices have been repaid with merciless karmic “justice,” the meaning of which finds the loosest possible definition here. Doomed cash-grabs are an essential ingredient to the Coens' tales of this fallen world lending a stage to the darkness enveloping the light. This is where satire and reality meet, and the meaning of the former becomes hazily vague. Simmons' final words seem like they could be truly uttered by a real-world spook. In its own way, Burn After Reading's coda leaves a grim punctuation not unlike No Country for Old Men's. The steely-eyed Gaear Grimsrud was unresponsive to Marge's words—“...for a little bit of money...”—and that, again and again, the Coens instruct, is the point. There are those who do what they do, and those who may oppose them, or at least fall victim to them, and, as the Coens conclude this black comedy, a dominant patina overtakes the audience's gaze. It may be funny in its own way, but it is also a note of almost cannibalistic apocalypse. There are fewer and fewer innocents to be found, and the guilty are more obtuse and foolish than ever.


Pat said...

Beautifully written, as always, Alexander, but I must admit I had a slightly different take on it.

To me, the Coens' films have evolved (or maybe the word is "devolved") from including at least some characters who know the difference between right and wrong and some sense of a prevailing moral order to creating worlds in which no such moral order exists.

I thought the most instructive lines in the final scene of "Burn After Reading" were (and here I'm paraphrasing from memory) "What have we learned from all this? Nothing." I don't recall many Coen Brothers films being that nihilistic prior to "No Country for Old Men."

Alexander Coleman said...

Pat, thank you for the very kind words.

I think your point is accurate, in the sense that the Coens seem to have allowed their characters to represent greater degrees of nihilism than at any time before in their filmography, with No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading. I still stand by the brothers are not being nihilistic, misanthropic or morally bankrupt themselves--but their last two films have unquestionably been more downbeat and, in their own respective ways, mournful in their uncompromising snap shots of humanity's great failings. (Barton Fink, which I'm considering for a review soon, in its own way hints at this despairing, at least quasi-Sophoclean outlook that reminds one of Antigone, which is partly why I called Simmons' character the "chorus," perhaps in his own way the the ruminating Sheriff of this picture. Perhaps the more appropriate comparison is Carson Wells, whose informed revelations concerning Anton help to illuminate the depths in which Llewelyn has found himself.)

I do concur with your take, however. There was no Marge Gunderson or even Ed Tom Bell, who, despite being at least one step behind the events, could at least intuit what had happened, even if it left him anguished and saddened.

Here, nobody knows anything. Burn, as a spy thriller, with its distinct brushing of the Cold War (Linda takes Chad to the Russians to sell the memoirs), recalls the Coens' deep interest in the loss of innocence as an evidently permanent fixture in Americana. (Which can be readily interpreted as the motivation to highlight the turmoils of Vietnam veterans in a couple of their films, a war frequently noted as an innocence-crushing failed experiment for this country.)

I do think that the main break here is the characters. In their own ridiculous, stupid way, Linda and Chad are as indifferent, callous and shatteringly hubristic as Anton. (For Anton, a "moral order" did not exist, or if it did he seemed instrumental in creating it for himself.) Granted, they don't deterministically judge others, because they don't even comprehend what they're doing to begin with. (Osbourne as much as tells Chad this in the car: he and Linda simply do not know what they are actually doing, because they apparently never grew up.)

Thank you for the very interesting thoughts, Pat. What you say about the lines from the final scene is quite true, in that, the Coens seem to contend in almost neo-Greecian terms, with this film, that bad things happen to good people--and they happen to dumb people and bad people as well. What is the point when the devastation is so indiscriminate? (Most pointedly clarified by Ted's shocking fate.)

Of course, I do think there are lessons we have learned, and since Simmons' position seems to coalesce in the broader view of the Coens' work as The Egomaniac Behind the Desk, like the bombastic producer in Barton Fink, Jerry in Fargo and Stephen Root's crooked businessman in No Country for Old Men, among others, I don't think we're left to such a nihilistic reading--that truly nothing can be learned, just that Simmons' CIA supervisor ironically (but of course not surprisingly) sees nothing to learn. It's an interesting self-contrasting point, as his words are propelled by not learning anything worthwhile in terms of the cold hard facts of the fiasco, but those words naturally ring in a different key for the audience. Perhaps most interestingly, it is his scenes that are arguably the most funny, which is a good argument that this is not a dumb film, just one that follows dumb characters, narratively and subtextually, two parallel wavelengths put together quite well here.

joel said...

Interesting review, Alexander. I need to see Burn After Reading again because I fear I missed something or brought the wrong expectations into the theater, but while this movie does certainly have much of the exuberant absurdity the Coens have brought to previous comedies, it just didn't fit together for me. Your comparison to Ladykillers is interesting, because that movie also left me equally disappointed (even on repeat viewings).

Reading your review, detailing how serious and direct the score and shooting are, I suddenly thought of Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece Dr. Strangelove. Like BAR, it is also a satire that wears the skin of a thriller and features wildly off-the-wall characters.

For me, Dr. Strangelove just works on every level where as BAR failed to really ring true for me. I think the difference is that the satire and parody of a Dr. Strangelove feels on-the-nose and direct where as BAR seems to be more forced. It kept me at arm's length for much of its running time.

I also like your comparison to Raising Arizona. These are two different films in many respects, but I think the characters of BAR would have resonated better in a less tangible reality. I think I would have preferred the film as a whole to be a bit loonier and more rubbery, rather than the hard plastic world these cartoon characters inhabit.

There is a darkness to the film and the characters that felt overtly cynical to me, and I had a hard time with that. This is the only Coen Brothers movie where I had a hard time not discounting many of the criticisms typically leveled at the brothers.

The further I get from it, the more it feels like a disappointment, hence I need to revisit it soon.

Alexander Coleman said...

You bring many excellent and worthwhile points to the proverbial table, Joel.

I'll freely admit, as I did at LiC about a week ago, that in a certain way, Burn After Reading does leave an impression of disappointment. I didn't want to get too much into the "broadness" of the characters in the review itself, but I will say that I have to agree. For some reason, Clooney's character, though highly amusing, never quite hit its stride the way I think it should have. Some of that may be Clooney's mugging, which, again, is something of a double-edged sword, as it was both enjoyable and possibly detrimental at the same time, strangely enough.

Your comparison to Dr. Strangelove makes sense. Pitt, Clooney and the others, no matter how talented, just cannot match up against Peter Sellers, and even others in that glorious cast. I agree with others who have heaped considerable praise on Pitt's performance, but not to the extent that I think he was especially effective. He was solid, and in his scene with Malkovich, very good at portraying a guy trying to act as a certain kind of person, which was undeniably very funny.

The tardiness of this review almost made me go see Burn After Reading again just for the sake of writing a likelier better review for it. I would still like to see it again, before it leaves cinemas.

I think you make a fine point, however, when you say that maybe the most unfortunate aspect of this film is that the Coens did make the world in which these zany characters live so realistic. If everything had been more off-the-wall, then perhaps a greater number of those comic character beats would have hit harder. (In relation to the Dr. Strangelove comparison, Kubrick did indeed shoot it a certain way with satirical "serious" music and everything, but for his satire he ably employed using real-world attributes to his advantage, such as a sign at a military base, just for one. The Coens never quite convinced me that they were interested in going in that direction--more voraciously sending-up the actual institution at the heart of the film, the CIA--though, so in a way I think they're less obligated to do that.)

So, I understand your disappointment. Raising Arizona and perhaps even more so The Big Lebowski just make me laugh, and the outrageousness of the humor is always a complement to the story the Coens are telling. Sometimes the Coens lose sight of the line between rompy frivolity and simple excess, and like you I had problems with The Ladykillers as it seemed to be a case of the brothers becoming too superficially focused on the absurdity and stupidity of their characters (like the football player in that picture, for one).

On the other hand, the Coens do have what can be considered a frustrating reticence to "fully commit" to what is supposedly the genre in which they are working. Usually, this is a simplistic misreading of their actual interest: No Country for Old Men was probably the most unjustified victim of thriller convention-inspired expectations ("Where's the showdown between Llewelyn and Anton at the end?"), but there are times when a film like Intolerable Cruelty will make you wish the Coens would just go ahead and make their screwball romantic comedy. (Actually, that is an interesting film against which to compare Burn After Reading as well, since it has a certain abrasiveness, right out of the starting gate with the almost instantly amplificatory and peculiarly dissatisfying Geoffrey Rush character, seemingly conveying a full-throated, no-holds-barred comedy, that the film does not cash in on in actuality.)

Nevertheless, despite these weaknesses, I did like Burn After Reading. For a few days this past week I was seeing it as more of a disappointment than I do now, and I think writing this review helped crystallize its more sparkling pieces.

It will be interesting to see how this film ages. One thing that I doubt will change is the fact that it doubtlessly begins slowly, and as a comedy only seems to rise like a souffle when the Coens want it to (with characters literally bumping into each other, resulting in tragedy but also much, rather black, humor). It also had what I thought was an uncharacteristically "abrupt" ending. Someone who saw the film with me noted, "It seemed to finally get fully warmed up, and then it ended." An oversimplification in my opinion, but not a mysterious reaction, either.

Sam Juliano said...

This picture worked better for me than it did for you, Alexander or for Joel for that matter. The deliberately nonsensical story line and the banal characters were deliberately drawn, and perversely this is what fueled the arcane humor. The characters are banal and insipid in large measure foir their astonishing stupidity, a device the Coens have used in the past.
However I have not come to bury Caesar but to praise him. Webster's dictionary has never gotten the kind of workout that you have given it in this vocaulary-rich and vivid review that yet again raises the bar. To write this well (and with a distinct style to boot at your young age is really incredible) Just look at your exhaustive description of John Malkovich's performance. Superlative.

and how about these sentences, which are my absolute favorites in the review:

"Frequently labeled as misanthropic or nihilistic by their more passionate or in certain cases malapert detractors, with BURN AFTER READING they seem more readily accepting of the scorn, creating characters that are so ill-tempered, obnoxious and almostridiculously harebrained that the picture seems to almost giddily supply those critics with more amunition with which to fire at the writer-directors brothers."

"By the time the film is finished, the picture makes less sense than ever."

"Doomed cash grabs are an essential ingredient to the Coens' tales of this fallen world lending a stage to the darkness enveloping the light."

"Much of the incongruence of BURN AFTER READING'S humor may stem from its lack of transparent beckoning for laughs."

I do agree that Clooney's character never reached it's stride as you say, and for me he's less interesting than Pitt and Malkovich, both of whom are riveting for different reasons.

I want to see it again soon, but I admit I will go it with optimism, an especially ironic position, in view of the film's oppressive nihilism. LOL!

Great, great review. You are the Man.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for your exceedingly kind and spirited words, Sam. As is often the case, I'm overwhelmed. Thanks.

I believe you gave Burn After Reading **** out of *****. I don't give ratings, but I'd say that this is probably somewhere around ***1/2 for me on that scale; but if I were to rate films, I'd probably use a **** scale, in which case I could find myself comfortable with either a ***1/2 or if I was feeling strict a ***. However, that is just based on one viewing, so any rating on my part would have to have the disclaimer attached as being at least some apocryphal.

Alexander Coleman said...

Somewhat apocryphal. Ah, it's late.

nick plowman said...

I only get to see this on the 21st of October, but I am most certainly looking forward to it.

Joel said...

Good points Alexander. My only comment is that for me, Big Lewbowski exists in a slightly different world than Raising Arizona or BAR. For the most part, Lewbowski's characters are absurd but they seem fairly real to me. Other than the nihilists or possibly Maude, they didn't seem to be mugging for the camera or overtly ridiculous. They are surely peculiar and absurd in many respects, but I could see running into them on the street. They are nuts that live on the fringes of society, but real people.

With Lewbowski, the Coens insert true absurdity and zany humor at the edge or outside the boundary of the film's reality: the Dude's "dream" sequences, the Cowboy narrator, and visuals like the beach blanket bingo slow-mo or the Dude's apartment manager performing his one-man show.

It never felt like a cartoon to me, which helped to reinforce the absurdity of the characters, which made me laugh harder.

BAR seems to be an uphill battle for humor, fighting between a real world and cartoon surreality.

Alexander Coleman said...

That's a tremendous, and very accurate, description of The Big Lebowski, Joel. I didn't mean to lump it in with Raising Arizona stylistically beyond the fact that the humor, much of which in The Big Lebowski, is, indeed, more on the fringes of the story (often communicated through dreams, as you say, a common and very interesting Coen trademark that sometimes seems to be dismissed as a device and not the fascinating probing of their characters that it actually represents).

The Big Lebowski is probably my favorite Coen comedy, though Raising Arizona is truly wonderful, too. (Barton Fink belongs in a separate category, though perhaps categorizing any of the Coens' films like this is foolhardy since they all have at least some significant differences, such as the ones we're discussing here.) I think The Big Lebowski still stands out for the very reasons you point to, Joel, and the fact that it's essentially a hilarious comic reshaping of a labyrinthine noir story with several key, traditional tropes, makes it all the more pleasing for me personally. And your point--"It never felt like a cartoon to me, which helped to reinforce the absurdity of the characters, which made me laugh harder," is exactly what I think about that film as well.

Burn After Reading does have that uphill climb, though, of borderline cartoon madness in a real world, and in that way I think it's a testament to how well-written and well-plotted it really is that it works so well. Interestingly, for these reasons, and perhaps others, Burn After Reading may later be seen as quite the step forward for the Coens, as I genuinely felt when writing my review.

Nick, you've just got three more weeks--it'll fly by.

Allan Fish said...

Nice piece, Alexander, I'll save further comment until I have seen it.

Sam Juliano said...

I understand Joel's position that BAR evinces an "uphill battle for humor," but from where I am situated it does not. "Stupidity" is a potent subject, (perhaps BEING THERE was the champion on that)and in the hands of these irreverents, even more so. There is no dearth of humor in this film even remotely.

I look forward to Allan's take on it too.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Allan, I'll look forward to your reaction to the film itself.

I agree, Sam, I can't think of anyone out there today who could make more use of stupid characters behaving stupidly than these two.

Daniel G. said...

Certainly the most academic treatment I've seen of BAR, Alexander, and one of the best.

I tried to think of that Marge Gunderson character you mention who is above-it-all in BAR, but there doesn't seem to be one in BAR. Maybe David Rasche's character as the weary CIA officer? I don't know.

Well you've truly raised the conversation on BAR to a higher level. Well done.

I also like Joel's description of Lebowski very much.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Daniel. Very much appreciated.

I need to look back on your review (which I promise I will soon), as I only really glanced at it before. As I said in a post a few days ago, I'm kind of catching up here some more, but I'll Get-back-to-Getafilm (har, har).

Ted, in his own way, represented a kind of sensible, moral force, though the moment he seemed to be corrupted by his own weakness (his affection for Linda) the Coens (MAJOR SPOILER) made him pay in pain.

Pretty bleak stuff. In that way, perhaps Joel's comparison to Dr. Strangelove is even more appropriate as humor was probably needed to give this picture some levity.

Evan Derrick said...

I've found the critical reaction to this film confusing, and that's played out in micro in the comments here.

BAR was, love it or hate it, as pure a Coen film imaginable. It had all their trademarks, and if it did anything wrong, it was TOO Coen. Near the end *SPOILER*, especially when the hatchet came out, I kept having severe Fargo deja vu.

Joel's response really surprises me, since I always pictured him as being firmly in the tank for the Coens. If one loves the brothers and their quirks, I have a hard time understanding why one wouldn't fully like this film.

The elite critics, the ones who responded negatively, attempted to explain why the film failed, which is a ridiculous way to approach the Coens and their work. If you didn't like it, it's probably because you don't like the Coens or want more NCFOM and less Raising Arizona/Big Lebowski. As I read reviews and listened to podcasts, I kept saying, "It's a friggin' Coen film for crying out loud!"

It's like someone reviewing a David Lynch film and criticizing it because it was obtuse and confusing. That's the point!

Anyways, been wanting to say that for awhile. :)

Evan Derrick said...

P.S. Sorry it took so long for me to get around to commenting, Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

You make a fundamentally sound and downright terrific point, Evan. Certainly one that must absolutely be considered. I agree that Burn After Reading is unquestionably a thoroughly Coen work, and many people who target it are probably not fans of the brothers. All terrifically reasoned points on your part.

However, if I may quote myself... I do think there is a substantial group of "Coen fans" who do occasionally tire of "their [the Coens'] precocious but occasionally far-out preciousness," and for a number of those, Burn After Reading seemed to go too far, or at least had difficulty with itself in doing so because of the constrictions placed on it by the Coens (from the music to many other, less obvious elements), as Joel and I were discussing.

It's an interesting question. Can the Coens go too far? Can Lynch? Etceteras... I think it goes back to the question of when a filmmaker, or pair of filmmakers, become tired based on one too many exercises in self-pleasure that fails to work for too many other folks. I still remember quite a few Internet sages saying, in the lead-up to No Country for Old Men coming out, "Eh, is a Coen film anything to get excited about anymore?" Based merely on what is usually considered their fallow period that for some stretches between The Big Lebowski and No Country and for others is represented merely by Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers.

I suppose it's all a question of balance, which by itself is an intriguing point concerning the Coens as their films are, in my view, all about balance, of a certain kind--and their body of work describes a kind of balance, too.

No need to apologize for getting here only now, Evan. As I try to say periodically here at Coleman's Corner, anyone is free to comment anywhere at anytime they like. You know, like all the other blogs on the Internet. :)

Moses Hernandez said...

Just followed your Happy Birthday, Brad Pitt linking today and read this. This is a Herculean review and provides great auteurist insight into the Coens.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you sincerely for the kind words, Moses.