Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Burn After Reading

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 9/14/08 w/ Additional Edits.

Written, produced, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading tells the story of an ex-CIA analyst whose copies of personal CIA files on a CD were taken by his wife that was suddenly found at a workout gym by two employees who try to blackmail the CIA analyst. Meanwhile, the man's wife is having an affair with a government agent who also dates one of the workout gyms' employees. A film about espionage and stupidity, the film explores blackmail in all of it shenanigans as the Coen Brothers return to their unique take on comedy. Starring Coen Brother regulars Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Richard Jenkins, and J.K. Simmons along with John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, David Rasche, Elizabeth Marvel, and Brad Pitt. Burn After Reading is a funny, entertaining film from the Coen Brothers that unfortunately, doesn't live up to their earlier work.

Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) had just quit the CIA after being demoted for his drinking. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with a Treasury agent named Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who is married to a children's author named Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel). With Cox having problems and Katie hoping to divorce him, she copies personal files on a CD to give her lawyer (J. R. Horne) for the divorce plans. Instead, the CD was found at a gym where one of its employees named Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) discovers CIA files. His friend Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) devises a plan to return the CD to Cox with money that she needs for plastic surgery as she is currently on the Internet dating scene.

After a failed meeting with Cox over the CD-money exchange, Chad and Linda turn to a Russian government official (Olek Krupa) to look over the CD to see if there's anything to get. Linda finds herself getting a date with Harry as the two have a good time while Harry is having flings with all sorts of women. Harry however, is aware that he's being followed by agents or whoever. Chad meanwhile, decides to find more about Cox in hopes to get bigger money yet something goes wrong. Harry's life starts to unravel as does his relationship with Katie. With Linda desperate for the money, her boss Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) is trying to get her out of this espionage thing. Yet, with Harry becoming paranoid and Osbourne Cox becoming angrier and unpredictable, two CIA officers (David Rasche and J.K. Simmons) try to figure it all out.

What the Coen Brothers try to do with this film is to put people in situations where things begin to unravel. Yet, what happens when an idiot finds personal CIA files on a CD with an accomplice and tries to get a big pay off? Well, a lot can happen if the story had focused on that. Instead, the Coen Brothers create a story that is a bit flat and wildly uneven. While some of the humor the Coen Brothers create is definitely funny and spot on yet the story is at times, unfocused. Plus some of the dialogue that characters like Cox, his wife, and Harry is a bit off. Especially if Cox and his wife say a lot of profanity. Now, profanity maybe okay to say for comedic use and some form of emotion. Yet, if it's done excessively but not in the right way. It becomes profane and uncalled for.

The direction of Joel and Ethan Coen does create some great compositions though at times, it seems a bit lazy. While the film is set in Washington D.C., there's not much of that location shown while a lot of the film is shot in parts of Brooklyn, NY. There's not much that's shown since the Coen Brothers are known for huge landscapes and a huge depth of field. Though their approach is more intimate with some great camera shots and scenery. The film does seem to have a hard time in what it wants to be. It wants to be a comedy, it wants to be a suspense film, or maybe a film with violence since there's bits of heavy violence that goes on. It's as if the Coen Brothers tried to cram a lot into this film and they barely succeed. The comedy for the most part is very funny which is true to their style. Still, the approach that Joel and Ethan Coen create is good but it's a let down considering the humor in some of their earlier comedies.

Taking over for their longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins, who was unavailable due to commitments to shoot Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road, is reknowned Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Known for his acclaimed, dream-like, naturalistic look for the films of Alfonso Cuaron and more recently, Terrence Malick, Lubezki's camera work is good in creating nice shades for the interior settings while the exterior shots of D.C. and Brooklyn are good. It's just that with Coen Brothers and Deakins known for their wide camera shots and Lubezki, who has a similar approach, isn't given much to do. It may look good and create a nice feel but one feels that Lubezki has done better work and kind of makes the hardcore Coen Brothers fan that Deakins shouldn't have done other projects. The Coen Brothers in their Roderick Jaynes alias do some nice work with the editing though the pacing at time tends to drag in some spots while it's rhythm does run smoothly but is often a bit disjointed.

Production designer John Gonchor with longtime set decorator Nancy Haigh and art director David Swayze do a fine job with the look of Osbourne Cox's boat, the Cox home, and a special chair that Harry has created. The Coen Brothers' longtime costume designer Mary Zophres does an excellent job with the costumes that includes the gym uniforms, suits, and dresses for the characters. Longtime sound editor Skip Lievsay and sound designer Craig Berkey do some excellent work with the film's sound mixing and editing that includes sounds of guns, tire squeals, and everything else to capture the film's humor and action. Longtime music composer Carter Burwell brings a nice, percussive-driven score to underscore the film's suspenseful tension and drama.

The cast, assembled by their longtime casting director Ellen Chenowith, is great as it features a cameo from Dermont Mulroney in as a character from a movie-within-a movie that also stars Claire Danes. Other small appearances from Raul Aranas as a gym employee, Jeffrey DeMunn as Linda's cosmetic surgeon, Kevin Sussman and J.R. Horne (who was also in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) as a couple of lawyers are good as they each stand out. Elizabeth Marvel is also good as Harry's wife who doesn't seem to like Katie Cox very much while having a secret of her own. Olek Krupa is excellent as a Russian government official who is intrigued by the files while having a couple funny lines about the content. David Rasche and J.K. Simmons are great as the CIA officials who try to piece up everything that goes in the film as their scenes and dialogue together are some of the film's best highlights. Richard Jenkins is also great as Ted Treffon, the gym manager who pines for Linda and tries to express his feelings only to do so at the wrong time.

Tilda Swinton's performance as the cold, icy Katie Cox is underwritten as Swinton is given really not much to do but act bitchy, be very cold, uncaring, and just stuck-up as Harry's wife says. It's a shame since Swinton isn't given the chance to say something funny or do something funny either as she can be. John Malkovich does get to have some funny moments and one liners as the very angry Osbourne Cox. Yet, scenes where's cursing repeatedly comes off as over-the-top and a bit excessive where his character becomes a caricature as Malkovich is reduced to look silly at times. George Clooney gives a good performance though his character doesn't have much to do either but sleep with women, exercise, build things, and get paranoid. Clooney's performance in the third act following an incident doesn't really work as he tries to be dramatic and it doesn't click with the rest of the film.

France McDormand is excellent, as usual, as Linda Litzke, a superficial woman who feels its time to get plastic surgery and try to go dating while leading the blackmail scheme against Cox. McDormand's performance is one of the highlights as her character tries to remain optimistic and has a clear goal in what she wants. The film's most zaniest and most enjoyable performance goes to Brad Pitt as Chad Feldheimer. Pitt definitely sells the idiocy of this character with a goofy hairdo, a silly smile, and movements to the iPod. Pitt's performance is always welcome and engaging as his character often brings a smile while his antics and shenanigans just keeps on bringing laughs. It's definitely one of Pitt's best performances in his career that as of recently, has been more challenging and taking on very different roles.

While Burn After Reading maybe slightly better than the Coen Brothers' previous comedies of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, fans expecting a superb comedy might be feeling somewhat disappointed. Despite top-notch work from Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand along with a slew of actors in smaller roles, Burn After Reading does succeed in bringing out its entertainment factor and humor. Yet, fans of Joel and Ethan Coen might feel like they've been let down a bit as their expectations are often high. Especially in comparison to the Brothers' other comedies like Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? In the end, Burn After Reading is a good entertaining film from the Coen Brothers but considering their prolific film history, it could've been much better.

(C) thevoid99 2012


Chip Lary said...

Good review. I agree that this is one of the lesser Coen efforts.

thevoid99 said...

Yeah, this was a disappointing film that I'm not eager to see again. Except for Brad Pitt as Chad!

s. said...

Great review! I did however enjoy the movie a lot and thought it was hilarious. I especially loved Pitt and Malkovich's performances - they were so funny and memorable. All around it's actually one of my favorite movies by the Coens and it never fails to amuse me.

thevoid99 said...

@Sati-Malkovich I enjoyed although it was just one of those films where I wanted more.