With an enormous amount of good will, and even after reading the bad reviews, I went to see the latest Coen brothers movie because I am a fan. Or I used to be. I used to love them because they would come up with stuff so original, that even if it was too quirky for its own good, it was fresh and unique and could not have been done by anyone else. This has not been the case since Oh Brother Where Art Thou, which was the last great Coen Brothers film in my book. I am not a fan of No Country For Old Men, as competent a movie as it is.
It is always a treat to see how well the Coens can put a film together. The editing is gorgeous, and so is the photography by the great Emmanuel Lubezki. The movie looks great. It has a very brisk, satisfying rhythm, accompanied as always by Carter Burwell's menacing tones (and in this case, by his earnest pastiches of Phillip Glass and heroic Hollywood movie scores as well). Burn After Reading is quite entertaining while you watch it, but the good feelings fizzle out the moment the movie is over. Actually, they fizzle out at the abrupt and sloppy end.
The script is a trifle and it doesn't seem to have been fleshed out. It is irrelevant and schematic, even if delivered with great pizazz. All you need to know is that it takes place in Washington, where Linda Litzky (Frances McDormand), a woman who works in a gym, wants to pay for plastic surgery but can't. She and her stupid sidekick Chad, (Brad Pitt) find a CD with what they think is classified information and they try to extract a reward. A comedy of errors ensues.
Unfortunately, a formidable cast of top notch actors have been directed to perform as if they belong in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. The quality of mercy is not strained, Shakespeare said, and so it is with comedy. Strain is not funny. And here you have Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, the increasingly iconic John Malkovich, working way too hard to be funny.
I was thinking how someone like Will Ferrell, a master of idiotic self-aggrandizement, can play stupidity and incompetence without ever straining. It just flows out of him as naturally, and as lightly as a bubbling spring, and that is why he is so funny. He is just supremely at ease with stupidity.
The thespians in Burn After Reading, however, are not. I wish their antics had been modulated down a notch or three. Or their characters had some sort of shading. Because they are all capable of comedy. Clooney has done it with far more restrain and panache before. Here he works too hard and he looks uncomfortable. Brad Pitt is very funny the first two or three scenes, but then all they give him to do is to repeat the silliness unaccompanied by any nuance. So what is funny for two minutes, becomes embarrassing as the movie progresses.
John Malkovich, even as he hams it up terrifyingly, is mesmerizing. Physically, he reminds me of Brando in his Colonel Kurtz period. He is more scary than funny, and he runs with it. Frances McDormand is a naturally funny actress but also way over the top and not tempered by sweetness or any other facet except a single minded determination to get plastic surgery and go on dates. This is a far cry from her character in Fargo, who was funny and endearing because she was too smart for her small town, and wisely played dumb. She was decent and tender and wily. Here she is just like a mechanical windup doll, and as gifted as she is, there is nothing to cheer her on about. About Tilda Swinton, the less said, the better. She is badly miscast.
The only guys who redeem themselves with huge amounts of class are the character actors. The fantastic J.K. Simmons, playing a very expedient, yet clueless CIA boss and the great Richard Jenkins, playing the gym manager and sad sack who is silently in love with McDormand. His love for her is almost heartbreaking, and yet quietly funny. They do their job without self-consciousness. One wishes the rest of the actors would follow their lead.
The movie is relevant to our times only inasmuch as it skewers the cluelessness of the CIA, who seem incapable of understanding anything that happens with crazy fitness addicts in a gym, much less controlling the security of this country. This is funny but treated in a way too oblique to really make a point. It is not a political satire. It is a movie about stupidity and venality and not much else. In their great comedies, Raising Arizona and Fargo (to me, their masterpiece), the Coens summoned a much more human quality. As here, there were crazy antics, and violence and absurdity, but there was also tenderness, and decency and human complexity. This is absent in Burn After Reading.
This is going to sound crazy, but I was thinking that maybe the Coens are cursed by the Gods of Cinema. The Gods of Cinema are those immortals who have left their great movies on Earth as they passed on to their Dream Factory in the Sky. They get angry when filmmakers insist on remaking and screwing up perfect works of cinematic art (in the Coens' case, inexplicably and unforgivably, The Ladykillers). The arrogance of thinking that Tom Hanks can better Alec Guiness or that the light charm of that comedy can be improved. The moronic gall of somebody reshooting Psycho frame by frame. This brings down their ire. So filmmakers atone for their sins by making duds by themselves. A fitting punishment. Too bad the audience has to suffer it as well.