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Burn After Reading: Coen’s Bring Imperfect Wackiness

Posted by goldwriting on September 24, 2008

You mean I can only be nominated for one Oscar at a time? But whyyyyyy???

As September crosses into the present, film critics and aficionados everywhere begin grinning and twitching in excitement. Oscar movies are officially on their way to the nearest silver screen. With the ribbon of quality content being cut, the first expected contender came from the brotherly duo not unfamiliar with the Oscar machine, the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. Fresh off the heels of their Best Directing, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars last year for No Country for Old Men, the cinematic brothers brought us a new chapter in their visual memoirs, Burn After Reading, a throwback to the darkly humorous days of Fargo, which also won them a Best Original Screenplay statue. Into the mix of directorial style and writing finesse we gained the acting skills of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton. Frances McDormand is also along for the ride, but she’s a Coen staple (and also married to half the duo, Joel Coen). This movie had Oscar potential written all over it, so the only question going in was would it live up to the expectations?

Swing…the ball connects…it’s going deep…almost there…awww. Ground rule double.

This is not an Academy award winning film and certainly not one of their best, but still a nice way to slide into the season of quality content over box office boffo. Burn After Reading is a quirky, silly tale following a disc of information thought to contain CIA secrets from a disgraced and angry analyst (Malkovich), which is found in a local gym and tightly grasped by the hands of a woman (McDormand) desperate for money to cover her plastic surgeries. Mostly what the Coen brothers are known for is the depth and creativity of their characters and this film does well to cover the bases on that point. Frances McDormand plays Linda, a terribly pathetic woman so deathly afraid of aging and the current state of her body that she has blinders on to the rest of the world and the happiness it can offer. She brings the solid level of commitment and shine we’ve come to know her for. Brad Pitt joins in with what has to be his silliest and least intelligent character to date, Chad, a constantly hyper-active, exercise fanatic who works with Linda at a gym called Hardbodies. I have to imagine this was a fun role for him to play since he hardly gets to let loose like this anymore, not since 12 Monkeys. He provided a lot of the early humor in the film, but also drops one of the biggest plot twists halfway through. Clooney brings to life Harry, a ex-personal bodygaurd with a penchant for compulsive lying and an addiction to sex. George only gets to be this wacky under the tutelage of the Coen brothers, so even while it’s not his best work by any means, it’s a fun reminder that he can indeed get goofy with the rest of the gang. Tilda plays the ice queen wife of Malkovich, while also having an affair with Clooney. Watching her in this role, along with some others, I wonder when her picture will be included in the dictionary next to “emasculating”. Not to be left out of any discussion about over-the-top characters, Malkovich plays his part to the hilt, but I honestly feel his best moments are in the opening scene. There’s not much of an arc for him, so only seeing him come to life early on really provides any surprise and unseen moments.

Burn plays inside the footprints of Fargo, but never quite catches up to it. The Coens obviously know their craft and continue to put material out there with their own voice and character stamp, but this film felt a little like a step back for them. Maybe it was just a way to resettle into the dark comedy they are known for after their detour into heavy drama with No Country. Also running parallel to this is the question of the marketing campaign. Again the trailer was cut in a fashion to show one type of movie, but once you were in the theater it became something different, not wildly so, but still there is a distinct shift in tone from wacky comedy to dark comedy, and sometimes those audiences don’t mix well. It’s like seeing a trailer for Police Academy and getting Rushmore. Two great tastes that taste awful together.

Recommendation: If you’re a devout fan, you’ve already seen it anyway. If you’re on the fence, wait until video. If you’re completely on the other side of the fence, you still read this far anyway? I’ll take that as a compliment. Thanks. 🙂

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One Response to “Burn After Reading: Coen’s Bring Imperfect Wackiness”

  1. seth said

    Love the article and despite being a coen fan, didnt think this was all that. I was also put off by the marketing misquotes. Those peeps are not to be trusted. Check out the way they whored Travers – http://www.gelfmagazine.com/archives/the_coens_emotionfree_uneven_thriller.php

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