Joe’s Blog

Burn After Reading (2008)

March 9, 2009 5:55 am


brad pitt dancing

 It’s tough following a big Oscar win. Cuba Gooding Jr decided that the best way was to appear in a succession of appalling ‘comedies'; Halle Bery and Nicolas Cage went down the ‘awful action movie’ route; and most directors normally disappear up their own arse making impenetrable, pretentious drivel, in an attempt to replicate the success of their ‘personal’ movie.

The Cohen Brothers, on the other hand, just carried on doing what they do best. That is, making whatever the fuck they want, normally side-stepping any possible expectations that the critics and audience could possibly have about what they’ll do next. As a result, many people were somehwat perturbed by Burn After Reading, a film that has so divided critical and public tastes that it just HAS to be watched.

This isn’t new for the Cohens. After the huge success of Fargo, they followed it with The Big Lebowski, to the utter bemusement of the paying public. Critics dismissed it as silly and self-indulgent, and the public stayed away, the film only finally finding its (now huge) cult audience on video.

I feel the same will happen to Burn After Reading, which critics dismissed as silly and self-indulgent, and the public stayed away… oh… deja vu…

The thing is, there is no way to describe what a Cohen Brothers film is. So for critics to say this isn’t worthy of them is a little ridiculous, because NOTHING is not worthy of them. They’ve done just about everything except sci-fi.

John Malkovich (in shouty crackers mode) is a CIA analyst who is unceremaoniously sacked for his alcoholism. This sets in motion a truly bizarre series events involving married serial-womaniser George Clooney, Malkovich’s wife, Tilda Swinton, and a pair of none-too-bright gym workers, played to perfection by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt (complete with Johnny Suede style hair).

The first 20 minutes or so are almost impenetrable, and could result in the casual viewer giving up before the fun starts, but once the Macguffin of a computer disk, supposedly containing “CIA shit” is introduced, things start motoring at a terrific pace, and everything begins to fall into place.

One thing most of the film’s detractors commented on is the ‘gang-show’ mentality of the whole thing. Just about every cast member has previous with the Cohen’s, and those that haven’t (specifically Malkovich and Pitt) had their parts written specifically for them. Swinton was brought in at Clooney’s request, after appearing with her in Michael Clayton.

I don’t understand the criticism though. Many people cite the Ocean’s films as another example of people seeming to have more fun than the audience. I think this is preposterous. How many times do crtics chastise a film because the leads have no chemistry? Surely a film where everyone is comfortable acting with each is a bonus, not a hinderance?

Well, that’s certainly the case here. While McDormand and Swinton are operating pretty much on effortless auto-pilot (but are excellent), and Clooney does his kooky jerk turn, Pitt and Malkovich are simply awesome. Pitt has honed and refined his Twelve Monkeys quirkyness into a genuinely stupid character. The scene where he tries to blackmail Malkovich and gets a bloody nose for his trouble is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in the past year.

Another Cohen regular, composer Carter Burwell, delivers a superb thriller score which is often at odds with the on-screen action, creating a terrificly disorientating mood at times. The look of the film is superb as well, with a wonderfully grey, cold look (all concrete and chrome) which also produces unease. The look of Russian Embassy, reminded me of both Eraserhead and Brazil.

What finally caps the film as a winner, for me, is a glorious final scene which not only explains, but possibly negates everything we’ve watched. It could also be the final reason why so many people DIDN’T like the film. To say anymore would be cruel, but I firmly believe that the chances of you enjoying Burn After Reading are strongly linked to how much you like the final scene.

It’s not an easy film to love. The difficult introduction will test many people’s patience, but those who stick with it should find themselves swept away on an increasingly ridiculous, but hilarious, ride that never goes the way you think it will.


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