Monday, September 29, 2008


The Coen Bros. new film is a perfect breeze through my head after the conflicted debate I had with myself over No Country For Old Men. I feel comfortable saying that Burn After Reading is the most enjoyable experience I've had in a theater this year. Zooming in on Langley, VA like we're experiencing Google Earth via a classroom projector, we roll with the feet of John Malkovich down the halls of CIA headquarters and end up zooming back out to satellite POV ninety minutes later after J.K. Simmons closes a classified file. Boom, zip, stamp! And, oh yeah... throw on a rare Fugs song over the closing credits for good measure.

Burn After Reading subliminally pleases audiences that are feeling fatigued by the political moment. Everything from Campaign(s) '08 to the current bailout fiasco has made the average citizen feel unjustly separated from the officials that work for us. Ingeniously, the Coens snip that proverbial red tape and have made a slapdash, weird-ass comedy where trainers at a local gym can walk into the Russian embassy and tell empty suits to hurry it up because they've got an afternoon date to make. That the Coens have pulled this off by avoiding the typical soapbox sophistry we've come to expect from the body politic of cynical Hollywood just makes Burn After Reading all the more enchanting.

Coming off such a fresh viewing, it's difficult to nitpick and pinpoint anything significantly wrong with this film. If pushed, perhaps I would finger Richard Jenkins' performance as a soggy fitness center manager. In a movie that so depends on the delivery and expressiveness of its actors - and the unrelenting stamina in keeping those two elements steady - Jenkins is the only one that seems to mail it in. The momentum in Burn After Reading comes to a pause when he's on screen. Luckily it's such a short lull that you barely notice.

Save Jenkins, everyone is great in a slew of minor roles that make up the ensemble in Burn After Reading. Brad Pitt finally reels in that overreaching he did in 12 Monkeys and re-channels it into a manic, inspired performance that teeters in between the irritably cute and the embarrassingly adorable. George Clooney is never better than when he's with the Coens (he should leave behind his trite message movies and stick to doing comedies), and Tilda Swinton is finally, deservedly, reborn since her days with Derek Jarman. But best is John Malkovich. Going from buttoned-up & bow-tied to house shoes, boxers, and bath robe, Malkovich is a force of bald-headed bravado. He deserves to get nominated for it, but performances like that don't get nominated from movies like this.

Personally, I can't stop thinking about the moment when Tilda Swinton methodically taps her index finger while discussing finances with her accountant. It's one of those characteristically quirky Coen moments that is also cinematically rhythmic and evocative. In the past, I've been one that's struggled with the style of the Coens. For me, it confused and disrupted the genre experiment of Miller's Crossing and negatively contrasted with the warm, small-town setting in Fargo. But in Burn After Reading, it's a perfect match. And I can't wait to go see it again, because I know there's moments I missed while grinning giddily at the screen the way Frances McDormand does George Clooney during her second viewing of Coming Up Daisy.


Slayton said...

I despised it. How can they make something so... inane? Especially after the brilliance of NCFOM?

Fox said...

Oh man, I disagree. I thought it was masterful. In ways, I think Burn After Reading is the Coens at their loosest, something they were getting at with Intolerable Cruelty but didn't quite reach.

I really like where they are at right now, which can change overnight, b/c I've always had rollercoaster reactions to their films.

Rick Olson said...

Great piece, Fox ... although I kinda disagree about Jenkins, who I tend to think of as "the man."

Anyhoo, to slayton: inanity is the Coen brothers' stock in trade.

Fox said...

Good point, Rick. As you just similarly pointed out on Pat's blog, inanity seemed to be central to the film.

To be fair to Slayton, it is a big shift coming off the serious tone of No Country, but then I guess you just get into the many flavors of Coen and which one you prefer.

Is there anyone out there that likes EVERY Coen film, I wonder? Besides the MOVIE ZEAL guys, of course.

John Smith said...

Good point...I will have to watch it again too...there are certainly some small points I missed.


bill r. said...

Fox, I like all of the Coens films, to one degree or another. And I, too, loved Burn After Reading, though I'm preplexed at your lukewarm reaction to Jenkins. Rick's right, he's one of the best there is. Maybe you didn't latch on to him because everyone else in the film is keyed up so high, and he was the only one going for subtle. That intake of breath, after McDormand snaps at him...just great.

Sebastian said...

To my mind everyone may read it.
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