Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Movie Review: Burn After Reading

Perhaps one of the drawbacks to artistic success is that one's work is necessarily measured against one's previous efforts; that is, earlier successes set a high bar for future endeavors. And so it was for the Coen Brothers latest release, Burn After Reading, which I viewed last weekend.

While I surely did not expect Joel and Ethan Coen to attain the heights that they set for themselves with their penultimate effort, the masterpiece No Country for Old Men, I did anticipate a damn good flick.

The film is described as a dark comedy, and it certainly fits the bill on both counts. The story follows the efforts of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a single, lonely and insecure middle-aged woman working at a gymnasium in Baltimore, as she schemes to garner enough money to pay for various plastic surgeries so she can "reinvent" herself. When her oafish, muscle-bound coworker, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), stumbles onto a computer disc loaded with what they believe is raw intelligence related to international affairs, the two of them set out to make themselves some money using blackmail, subterfuge, and burglary.

Meanwhile, in the higher social circles of Washington, DC, former CIA analyst Obsorne Cox (John Malkovitch), and his cold and imperious wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), are thoroughly enmeshed in the struggle for supremacy of status with the childish Lothario, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and his wife. Their lives revolve around careers and divorces and extramarital affairs and, above all, money.

As the story unfolds, the various characters bungle their way forward, with hilarious results, but punctuated in that uniquely Coen Brothers way, with a couple brutal murders. I laughed out loud throughout the movie. Brad Pitt's performance was particularly hilarious.

And while this movie is definitely a comedy, the Coen Brothers did not fail to pose some serious questions about our American society, with its misplaced priorities, its isolation, its inherent loneliness. The discordant brutality of the murders push us out of the easy comfort of a comedy and force us to examine these issues.

All in all, I judged the movie a success. But as my friend, Jeanine Potts, pointed out when we discussed the film afterward, there were times when I found my mind drifting as I watched. Burn After Reading did not draw me in completely and hold me rapt in the way that other Coen Brothers films like No Country... did.

So, with the stipulation that it does not stand at the top of the Coen Brothers achievements, I recommend this film.

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