Burn After Reading

Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen, 2008).

When the Coen Brothers are in top form, as they are in their new CIA comedy Burn After Reading and last year's No Country for Old Men, it makes you wonder how they can ever do wrong. And in fact, even their relative misfires--dizzy pastiche like The Hudsucker Proxy, brittle noir like The Man Who Wasn't There, throwaway fluff like The Ladykillers--offer the viewer more intelligent visual and verbal stimulation than most other mainstream films. One of their most impressive achievements is not repeating themselves morally. More precisely, no two Coen Brothers films have the exact same moral weight, though each one has a measure that seems careful and exact.

By "moral" and "moral weight," I don't mean anything as crude as a "message." I'm thinking of more of a quantifiable ratio: a ratio of moral actions foregrounded or downplayed, emotions evoked or withheld, attitudes implied or occluded. The formula for this ratio is usually complex rather than simple, and when it is simpler, the movie is generally pitched as whimsical fantasy (Raising Arizona, Hudsucker, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). One constant or near-constant in the formula concerns the fates of the innocent, and the amount of investment in those fates the directors permit us. Depending on how it is handled, the deployment of this theme can make for tragic seriousness or comic sadism, or--most interestingly and most often--some degree of both. Even in No Country, which must be the brothers' most straight-faced dramatic production to date, the wiping of blood off a shoe confuses our trained responses, making us process horrified sadness and wry wit in the same instance.

Burn After Reading is never anything but farce, in the sense that its characters are satirical puppets. This is as true of the "sympathetic" ones as the ogres and buffoons. Or, the point is, everyone is an ogre and/or a buffoon, even the most blameless ones (including Claire Danes and Dermot Mulroney, if you can call them characters). How on earth can you care about these people? That's part of the Coens' genius in this film: you don't, but it all still works. You may find yourself hoping that certain characters fare better than others, but usually only provisionally, within the confined logic of a single scene or sequence. In No Country, the mortal consequences are felt deeply, though even there they are felt through a certain filter, an ironizing layer of textuality. In Reading, these consequences are occasion for sport, for loud belly laughter, even if it comes with a guilty hesitation. It's as funny as anything the Coens have ever done, but it's probably their most agressively nihilistic film. I'm sure many other viewers will make this same observation, but the reference point I kept returning to was Dr. Strangelove. This is most obvious in the parts that take place behind closed doors at Langley (especially the two brilliant short scenes with J.K. Simmons as a cynical superior officer), but the tone of schadenfreude throughout is of the same nervous timbre, down to the shaky sixties lettering and graphics on the movie poster. Accordingly, the global zoom-in/zoom-out visuals that frame the film seem like more than just a convenient cinematic cliche: with the accompaniment of Carter Burwell's urgent, drum-driven score, they extend the joke to something sublimely large and cruel.


Ryan said...

I first want to say that I haven't yet seen this movie but plan to...

And since I'm going to have to see it to comment, I'm sure I'll have part II to this, but....

I'm not sure about moral weight: the one thing the Coen Bros. seem to repeat is their disdain for humanity --certainly an attempt at moral weight, replacing a joie de vivre, or at least an indifference toward it-- a cynicism of human actions that reminds me of Robert Altman's actors in Short Cuts (not quite Three Women) and Michel Gondry at his least fanciful; wherein the actions of these agents/actors/Actors are interchangeable, and there's a fascination with the mundane and idiosyncrasies that takes away from the story line. This surface cynicism hides a deeper cynicism, or perhaps betrays it: most people simply aren't that interesting. These characters are self-interested and flawed, all driven to end badly in some way, it seems, but almost flawed in a flowery way, like we're supposed to be surprised flaws can be that flawed and it's funny. I guess.
But not when it's repeated in every movie. This "human as clod/klutz/putz/bumbling imbecile" as motif isn't bad per se, but the repetition of it gets to be somewhat predictable and downright annoying.

Ryan said...

I've finally (just) seen this. I was very pleasantly surprised. From the beginning (based on the global-to-locale zoom and the effects on actors' and place names) I prepared for something close to near-Grisham parodying proportions. I wasn't let down. In fact, I felt the idea of the innocent, the "I'm in over my head/there are power struggles/jargons we are ignorant of," was just the right pitch. If the govt. spooks were "in" on it while the unsuspecting wrongheaded gym employees were ignorant, then your idea about our apathy being spread around doesn't hold as much weight, but the cluelessness of the CIA in dealing with Chad and Linda's Cold War/spy novel references being on par with the latter's cluelessness about global politics really works. Neither side knows who Linda Litzke is working for, not even Linda. This was wonderful.