Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Retro Review: Burn After Reading

 editor's note: In his continuing quest to re-post older reviews that never made it from the old Blogorium to its present home, Cap'n Howdy has been delivering piles of digital bits to me in the hopes I know what to do with it. Some movies are older than others, but most of these come from a period between 2006 and 2009, when the move took place. Enjoy


I promised Eck's Mass schwag, and we'll get to that momentarily. I wanted to start by thanking Tom for the awesome gift he delivered unto me via my box at work, Burn After Reading.

  About halfway through the last semester, the film students started yapping about how excited they were about Burn After Reading following No Country for Old Men yadda yadda, and it wasn't a total surprise to hear almost all of them bagging on the movie the week after release. It didn't come as much of a surprise because I suspected a retread of the Fargo to Lebowski situation in the late nineties, and having finished Burn After Reading, that's exactly what happened.

  It seems like the bigger a phenomenon a Coen Brothers film is, the more likely they are to follow it up with something totally off the wall. After O Brother Where Art Thou turned into a bluegrass sensation, they made The Man Who Wasn't There, a really bizarre tribute to film noir in black in white that lost pretty much all but the die hard fans. Going back before that, Fargo proved to be something of a curious hit that caught on with non-Coen fandom, and then they released The Big Lebowski, a movie that confounded average audiences and took five or six years to really achieve the cult status it has now.

  Burn After Reading is not likely going to have that kind of cult audience ten years from now, but that doesn't make it a disappointment. If anything, it might be remembered as a sort of Hudsucker Proxy for aficionados down the line*. Burn After Reading is the Coens take on espionage films, packed (like Lebowski) with idiots.

   What's funny is how straight they play the "thriller" angle, down to the way too serious music. But that's not actually what the movie's about. As Adam put it, BAR is about "one woman's quest for plastic surgery by any means necessary", and it's really hard to argue against that, especially by the end. Everything in between is a comedy of errors set in motion by selfish morons trolling around and being generally despicable. It's not hard to see why people find this movie difficult to like.

  Of course, if I boiled down The Big Lebowski to "a stoner who wanders around trying to get his rug back while dealing with a series of selfish assholes", you might not rush to see that either. Plot is rarely the most important part of a Coen Brothers film. They're more interested in seeing how characters interact, and damn do they have an interesting cast assembled.

  By now you've seen Frances McDormand and George Clooney all over the trailers, with a smattering of John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. Pitt's Chad Feldheimer steals every scene of the movie he's in, and you've really never seen him play a character like this. I would liken it to Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou, where he really cuts loose and feels free to be goofy.

  However, I don't want to take anything away from Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, or my two favorite parts of Burn After Reading, the CIA agents in charge of making sense of the shenanigans you'd call a plot. J.K. Simmons and David Rasche pop in at various points in the film, not so much to catch us up but to further address how ridiculous the plot twists get. Many of you know who Simmons is, but it was a real treat to see Rasche, of tv's Sledge Hammer in the movie.

  The film may never attain "cult classic" status, but it's nowhere near the mess you might have heard it was. Of course, film students who cannot remember their film history are doomed to repeat it...

No comments: