Burn After Reading: The Coens’ Continued Plea For People to Stop Stealing
Whenever I see a Bourne movie, or a Bond movie, or any of these spy thrillers, I’ve often wondered, “How do all these people know absolutely EVERYTHING?” There’s nary a scenario they haven’t thought through, there’s nary an obstacle they can’t overcome, and they are constantly one step ahead of everyone else. Yet most people in the real world aren’t like that—aren’t there any superspies who aren’t… well… super?
Burn After Reading is the Bourne movie I’ve always wanted to see. It’s filled with self-absorbed people who don’t think of everything—in fact, they rarely think of anything. They think one step ahead, they don’t see the future repercussions of their actions. The blackmailers are normal people, the superspies are far from super, and the ending doesn’t have the good guy win, because, well, there aren’t many “good guys” in real life, are there?
The Coens are today’s ultimate moralist directors. In a way, this film is like the stepsister of No Country For Old Men—someone steals in order to elevate their standing in life, but because they don’t realize who they stole from, their best-laid plans fall apart. Only this time, ou have a hyperkinetic Brad Pitt, in a role that isn’t just hilarious, but the furthest he’s ever gone into character, and possibly his best performance to date. You have a flamboyantly alcoholic John Malkovich, who says the F-word better than any actor alive. I’ve loved every comedic turn that he’s taken since Being John Malkovich (including his villainous Frenchman in the underrated Johnny English), and this is no exception. You have George Clooney, who pushes his ladykilling reputation into unadulterated sleaziness, to riotous effect. Special mention must go to JK Simmons, in one of the few roles in memory that receives a laugh with every single line he utters.
The movie isn’t flawless—the tonal shifts can be jarring, and there are some plot maneuvers in the 2nd act that seemed to meander. Plus, and most surprising to me, I found Frances McDormand’s performance to be hammy and shrill. I realize her character is meant to be unlikable… but it feels like she’s pushing her energy and her callousness so hard that it stops being a character and starts becoming a caricature. She’s one of the best actresses around… perhaps a character so broad and so crass is not something within her vocabulary as an actor.
I’d like to bring up quickly an accusation that Peter Bart and various other critics have made about the Coens—the accusation that the Coens have no heart, and their filmmaking is cold. I’ve never really agreed—just because you laugh at Marge Gunderson’s “you betchas,” or you gasp at what happens to Donnie’s ashes, or you’re surprised at what happens with Richard Jenkins’ lovable gym owner in this film, it doesn’t mean that the Coens don’t LOVE these characters. Sometimes people get thrown a bum fate because of the actions of others—it’s how real life is, so why is it when likable characters don’t end up the way that we’d like them to, the Coens are deemed heartless? The bottom line is that the Coens, along with Spike Lee, are the best and most consistently interesting filmmakers of their generation, and much like Lee, they make endlessly fascinating choices that occasionally alienate an audience who would like a more conventional film. I like what happens to the Coens’ lovable characters here, I love the ending which is bound to frustrate half of the audience, and despite the fact that I would label this a bottom 5 Coens film, it’s a testament to their talent that one of their five worst films would still be leaps and bounds better than the overwhelming majority of directors working today.