Hot on the heels of this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner “No Country for Old Men, the anticipation for The Coen Brothers’ latest release “Burn After Reading couldn’t be more vehement.
I waited patiently in a long queue to buy my ticket – The Brothers, along with Terrance Malick, are the only American filmmakers whose productions I wait feverishly for, regardless of the plot, genre or cast.
“No Country isn’t just the Coens’ magnum opus and biggest commercial success to date; it’s one of the most perfect, most monumental films of the new century.
The choice to follow “No Country, a meticulously crafted, bloodcurdling thriller, with a comedy wasn’t surprising. The Coens have made a habit of juggling between comedies and dramas/thrillers throughout their 24-year-old career.
Some of the pair’s most acclaimed and popular works – “Raising Arizona, Fargo, “The Big Lebowski – have been, in fact, comedies.
However, “Burn isn’t a great Coens, not even as funny as “O Brother, Where Art Thou? their first feature with frequent leading man George Clooney.
Still, it’s not a bad Coens. Nowhere as shabby as the ill-fated remake of “The Ladykillers or the capraesque “The Hudsucker Proxy.
“Burn is a peculiar film, a deeply nihilistic black comedy, the darkest of their career, with a worldview as bleak as “No Country.
It’s quite hilarious though, disturbing at times with a handful of standout performances by stars playing against type. It’s a strange amalgam between the 1970s’ conspiracy thrillers and film noir played against a backdrop of internet dating, various forms of addiction and consumerism.
A typical, lightweight Hollywood comedy “Burn is not.
Set in Washington DC, John Malkovich plays Osbourne Cox, a low-ranking, misanthropic, foul-mouthed CIA analyst suffering from alcoholic problems he refuses to acknowledge. Cox is married to Katie (Tilda Swinton), icy, child-hating pediatrician who’s having an affair with swaggering ladies-man Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a bodyguard working for the US Treasury who also happens to be a sex-addict.
Cox’s alcoholism is no hidden matter, propelling his superiors to fire him. As an act of revenge, he decides to write a revelatory memoir about his time at the agency. Because of his position’s limited access, the memoir is, in fact, worthless.
The memoir winds up in the hands of gum-chewing, hyperactive personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt, sporting a 12-year-old haircut, fabulously adorned with blonde highlights) and his middle-aged coworker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a spinster attempting to fund her forthcoming multiple plastic surgeries.
Linda frequently uses internet dating services and ends up dating Harry after a streak of occasional hook-ups with desperate, down-on-their-luck middle-aged nerds.
Completely oblivious to the real value of the documents, Chad and Linda eventually decide to blackmail Cox. That’s when things turn horribly wrong.
The Coens said their latest release is “our version of Tony Scott/Jason Bourne type of movie – without the explosions. Indeed, the duo takes the hallmarks of spy movies and tears them down.
Like a majority of Coens films, the infrastructure of “Burn is founded on the basic framework of film noir: helpless, unfortunate dimwits caught up in series of escalating situations that always go amiss.
The key difference in “Burn is that the MacGuffin, the plot element that drives the entire actions of the characters, is pretty much nothing. The main thrust of the subsequent chain of murders, double-crossings and mayhem is nothing more than a vacant object of no importance.
Unlike their previous comedies, “Burn doesn’t contain a single sympathetic character to root for. Apart from the lovelorn gym owner Ted (Richard Jenkins), all characters are self-obsessed, vain and, simply put, dumb.
It’s no surprise that Clooney referred to his third collaboration with the Coens as “my trilogy of idiots.
All characters seek instant, momentary pleasure in alcohol, sex and money.
All are, to varying degrees, naïve, and full of transgressions. Perhaps that’s why the film borders on sadism.
There’s no redeeming factor for the characters, no gentleness or hope.
Some events occur haphazardly, other carefully calculated ones, premeditated by higher forces, have no significance whatsoever. The Coens world is Godless, where bad things happen for no reason.
In the hands of any other filmmakers, “Burn could’ve easily been turned into an austere tragedy. Thanks to the Coens’ sinister sense of humor, the quirky comedy manages to wipe out the bad aftertaste audiences may have experienced. And take my word, there’s a lot to relish in here.
Nearly all performances are over the top; none more so than Pitt’s riotous turn as the world’s biggest doofus. An i-Pod-chained, tight sports outfit-wearing kid misplaced in a man’s body, People magazine’s sexiest man alive displays none of his glamorous characteristic features, fostered by the Coens’ odd, unflattering angles.
Malkovich is equally uproarious – deliciously obnoxious, livid and high tempered. Clooney, like his two previous efforts with the brothers, taints his character with one memorable shtick. This time, it’s his “butt-crunches and, most notoriously, his fixation on creating the world’s greatest sex toy that evidently led to a boost in sales of sex toys across the US after the film’s release.
Some of the odd encounters the characters find themselves in rank among the highlights of the film. The best one sees Linda trying to sell Cox’s memoirs to the Russian embassy, only to be met by the Russian culture attaché who consequently transfer the documents to the baffled CIA.
Only four of the Coens’ 13 films were set in present time, yet even those essentially felt like period pieces. “Burn is no different, and the attention to detail is no mere production element. The Coens construct distorted picture of the capital supplemented by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s subdued colors.
Washington’s grandeur, and the lofty principles it once represented, are swamped under overwhelming powers of consumerism, the apathy of its citizens and the incompetence of its intelligence.
At times, it’s difficult to avoid the Coens’ contempt, their showy, self-clever narrative and visual hallmarks. Their dialogue, another signature brand of theirs, remains brisk, fast, smart and funny. As matter of fact, very few American scriptwriters have the aptitude to churn dialogue as distinctive as the Coens.
Yet, the chief factor determining whether you’ll like “Burn After Reading or not depends on the extent to which you subscribe to the Coens’ philosophy.
Recently, American filmmaker Spike Lee criticized the Coens for “treating life like a joke. It’s like, ‘Look how they killed that guy! Look how blood squirts out the side of his head!’
Indeed, the Coens have little reverence for life, and “Burn is a prime example of how they regard it from an absurd prism. Yet, in such a politically, socially and economically uncertain world, there’s perhaps no other way to comprehend the lunacy of it all.