November 17, 2014

Culture | September 18, 2008
Burn after watching
The Coen brothers strike again
Written by Olivia Hoffmeyer

I cannot believe that George Clooney is still hot – but he is. And Joel and Ethan Coen are still brilliant, and Brad Pitt is actually still an actor.

The Coen brothers’ new film, Burn After Reading, opened on September 12 and after last year’s beautiful, bleak No Country for Old Men, it is a welcome return to the acerbic comic insight of some of the filmmakers’ earlier work.

These guys may be dark and twisted, but they also made The Big Lebowski. The new movie does contain some Coen brothers’ trademarks: brutal violence, an emphasis on interpersonal relationships, and a striking attention to detail, but Burn After Reading laughs in the face of high stakes.

The film is modeled after a high-intensity CIA thriller – the likes of which Clooney is very familiar with – but does not derive its humour from typical thriller conventions.

Though the premise could be easily mocked, the film doesn’t fall into the familiar trap of farce. Rather it is an intricate comedy of the mundane. Dramatic emphasis is placed on inconsequential moments, whereas, serious events are treated flippantly to great comic effect.

Burn After Reading focuses on two personal trainers at Hardbodies Health Club (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand), who uncover what they believe to be CIA secrets left on a CD in the lady’s locker room. This triggers a series of events that bring very different people face-to-face and expose fatal weaknesses in the film’s characters.

The film is dazzling because of the Coens’ attention to detail, Clooney’s return to his comedic roots, and the entire cast’s commitment to their characters’ flaws. John Malkovich plays a CIA analyst with a sad life and a cold wife (Tilda Swinton). Pitt is wonderfully moronic and McDormand is self-involved in the most eccentric way. Clooney manages to make his sex-crazed and essentially despicable character human, and perhaps even likeable.

The casting was perfect down to the remotest of secondary characters. Perhaps the best example was J.K. Simmons as a perplexed supervisor who voices the audience’s take on the whole proceedings with a detached irritation.

Essentially, this film is driven by a narcissistic desire for plastic surgery, a drinking problem, and serial internet dating. The focal moments, stylistically, are devoted to the seemingly inconsequential elements, asking us to laugh at the fact that the most important things in these characters’ lives are sex, money, and an inability to admit their insignificance.

In a world where we are conditioned by the media to expect epic power struggles and dead spies, the Coen brothers manage to mock our expectations while still delivering on them. Burn After Reading is a comedy that acknowledges how outrageous the mundane really is, while acting as a saddening reminder of how pathetic people can be, and how maybe, we’ll never learn.

Most of all, it is a showcase of the talented cast; there is no deep exploration of the human condition in the film – only a romp à la 1930s screwball comedies. There is no message, only the joy that creative artists at the top of their game can provide.

Burn After Reading is now in theatres. Check cinemamontreal.com for listings.

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