Burn After Reading Review

The comedies of Joel and Ethan Coen can largely be shoved into a category with the heading "Idiots on Parade" and a disclaimer to the effect that bad things often happen to stupid people. And by comedies I mean nearly every one of their films. And by stupid people I mean nearly every one of their characters. Burn After Reading is the Coens' 13th film and only No Country for Old Men can be ruled out entirely as having no true comedic elements. Even Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing have enough quirk to feel like ultra dark comedies. Bitter chocolate is nonetheless still chocolate. Dimbulbs likewise populate them all in various degrees of idiocy, with No Country again their most restrained and, not coincidentally, best work. You can certainly find characters across the Coens' films that are either smarter than they appear, like Fargo's Marge Gunderson, or so blissfully humane like The Dude in The Big Lebowski that their shortcomings are blended into a beautiful loserdom both attractive and quixotic. Mostly, though, "Idiots on Parade."

This attention to morons, often perceived as being done in a condescending manner, has become the Coens' bête noire among detractors. But these aren't films filled with rakes to the face. The stupid people in the Coens' movies are usually filled with greed and the desire for personal gain. They do it, time and again, for money or sex or some other sort of shallow self-improvement. If anything has become clear in the 13 films made by the brothers Coen it's that they don't like the idea of people who will resort by any means necessary to lie, cheat, steal, etc. Several characters in Burn After Reading learn this tenet the hard way, forcing viewers to not get too attached to any of them. Interestingly, Osborne Cox, the character played by John Malkovich, seems like a Coen surrogate repeating endlessly how stupid everyone is and that he's formed an entire career fighting imbeciles. He later rails against the "League of Morons" he's already attached near-universal membership to. Cox is still at the mercy of the filmmakers, though, and the portrayal is far from favourable.

So the Coens seem to not like the outwardly idiotic contingent, and they also show scorn for the character who similarly berates everyone's lack of intelligence. The question, then, arises as to whether they like anyone at all. Judging solely by Burn After Reading, the answer is a resounding negative. You can see where this would turn a lot of people off. This particular film is a doozy of misanthropic fantasy, all played for laughs. The kicker is that they've put likable actors and movie stars into these completely unredeemable roles. Funny costumes and haircuts, cheap, shocking violence, and a general display of mean-spiritedness all factor into the Coens' work here. There's a sense that you either enjoy this sort of thing from these guys or you don't. It's typical of the Coen brothers, and neither their best nor their worst, but pretty fun all the same. And who else can you even imagine making a movie like this?

Though he made far less films and worked in an entirely different era, the filmmaker the Coens seem to repeatedly try to emulate is Preston Sturges, who also had a hilarious streak of misanthropy that sometimes seems intentionally overlooked in favour of letting laughs exist on their own. But who are we laughing at in Sturges' films? Often it's rubes just like the Coens target, only separated by several decades. There's a little place in my medium-sized heart that likes to think of the Coens as slightly watered down and aggressively violent versions of Preston Sturges. They obviously share a sense of absurdity in addition to the general dislike of the human race. The title of one of the Coens' biggest commercial successes O Brother Where Art Thou? was even lifted directly from Sturges' Sullivan's Travels. When you look at their varying output, Sturges really does seem to be their primary influence across the spectrum. Keeping with that idea, Burn After Reading sort of seems darkly brilliant in the vein of his Unfaithfully Yours.

The plots are far from being alike, but that same sense of confusion is at play here and the audience is almost dared into taking sides in both. Burn After Reading introduces us not only to Malkovich's Osborne Cox, but also his wife Katie (played as emasculatingly as a vasectomy by Tilda Swinton). There's the Treasury agent Harry (George Clooney) who's involved with Mrs. Cox and his wife (Elizabeth Marvel) who's a children's book author. They all, either directly or by extension, become connected to a couple of doofuses at the Hardbodies gym, given life by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt. The Coens do a nice job of sprawling these characters out rather judiciously and affording each his or her time in the sun. Pitt seems to have gotten the lion's share of praise, despite appearing mostly like Brad Pitt playing a idiot, but I especially enjoyed Malkovich for the combination of his total condescending anger and, also, his undervalued use of both the bowtie and the hand axe. Clooney is sort of fun too, but not much removed from his other characters for the Coens.

Though the spy thriller plot basically guides the film, it's more of an excuse for the characters to show their stripes of stupidity than anything else. I see little reason to discuss it. The other careful touches are what make for the most interesting aspects. Clooney's agent is seen methodically building something in his basement that's obviously intended to be as secretive as it important. The reveal as to exactly what his extremely personal project is gets presented with equal parts hilarity and nonchalant surprise. Likewise much of Pitt's screen time, where his performance is so ridiculously broad as to still be funny enough to forgive his trying too hard. The treatment of McDormand, also the wife of Joel Coen, blurs some line of awkwardness by allowing her to be portrayed as a lonely woman whose body, as she says, has gone as far as it can without some improvements. I kind of wish the Coen brothers had directed Forrest Gump.

Burn After Reading fits nicely in the filmmakers' career as an exercise to determine just how far viewers will allow them to stray from any hint of normal likability. It's a test of sorts where a cast full of Oscar bait act with all their stupidity and meanness amid a plot that seems there from necessity more than importance. The audience serves as white lab mice. Even so, I liked it quite a bit and there's an obvious exhale from No Country for Old Men at work here just as The Big Lebowski could be viewed as an antidote to Fargo. The Coens do seem to relish their superiority, but maybe I'm just not sensitive or insecure enough to really care. Burn After Reading is an often cartoony excuse for everyone involved to goof around. It holds no truths. It makes no real statement. It's typical of the Coens' tomfoolery, and, as such, it's minorly brilliant. If films like this were produced this well by anyone else in Hollywood today then I might be less laudatory, but the simple truth is that you won't see movie stars and respected actors making asses of themselves to such a degree most anywhere else. As such, a lesser Coen brothers film is still one of the strongest things to come from the major studios this year.

The Disc

Released simultaneously on DVD and Blu-ray by Universal in the U.S., this review is for the DVD version.

The 1.85:1 image is quite strong. It's enhanced for widescreen televisions and transferred progressively. The detail and sharpness are exceptional for standard definiton. Only some digital noise reminds the viewer that the presentation is for DVD instead of Blu-ray. Light grain fills out the image nicely. The palette seems to be bright and lending itself well to digital transfer. There's no evidence of any damage or significant problems here.

Audio is given a Dolby Digital 5.1 track in English. Mostly dialogue, but nonetheless consistent and at a reasonable volume. The score, at times, is booming and obvious. The rear channels can get some use also. It's even perhaps stronger than you might expect in a film like this, especially considering the Coens' aversion to outside music in No Country. This is a different story and it's all reproduced notably well. Subtitles are also provided for English, French and Spanish, and are white in colour.

Typical of a Coens film release, the extra features are fairly uninspired. That said, the glaringly basic featurettes included here are still very watchable and good for what they are. "Finding the Burn" (5:31) is billed as a making-of and it's interesting mainly for the Coens' dryness while being interviewed. A similar fate attaches itself to "DC Insiders Run Amuck" (12:24), which purports to focus more on the cast and production design, but still feels incredibly basic. The final piece is "Welcome Back, George" (2:51), a short celebration (?) of Clooney's working with the Coens now for the third time. These are all worth watching once, but it's doubtful you'll take anything of meaning away from them. They are, in some ways, as enigmatic as the Coens themselves, and that's probably the point.

Disappointingly, there's no trailer for Burn After Reading here. When inserted, the disc does drone on with trailers for Hamlet 2, Milk and some ghastly-looking Beethoven sequel to a sequel.

The cover art also fails to use the excellent theatrical one-sheet, employing a Larry King quote to boot. The backside uses black type on maroon background for the credits, making it needlessly difficult to read. The disc itself is of a pleasant red colour, though nothing resembling the disc in the film.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:21:11

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