‘Burn After Reading’: Erector Set movie-making

September 11, 2008


As much as I love the Coen brothers, their excursions into the purely antic tend to be hit and miss – more often miss.

So it is with ‘Burn After Reading,’ one of those movies whose trailer and cast inspire a huge want-to-see and leave you wondering: What were they thinking?

This is another Coen package – along the lines of “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers” – in which the whole is significantly less than the sum of the parts. “Burn After Reading,” unfortunately, is another movie with infinite discipline and visual imagination but dispiritingly little on its mind.

It’s hard to imagine what the Coens were after with this script. It’s meant as a deadpan spoof, cranking up the mechanism of a noir-ish spy thriller, but making it a story about nothing very much.

It begins with Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a self-absorbed CIA analyst. When he’s told that he’s being demoted because of his drinking problem, he quits in an outburst of profanity. It’s the first of several such scenes, begging the question of whether, at some point, one or both of the Coens thought or said aloud, “Wouldn’t it be funny to have John Malkovich shouting ‘Fuck!’ over and over?” (Answer: Not after the first time.)

Osbourne is married to the dominatrix-like physician, Katie (Tilda Swinton), whose severity is one of the film’s most under-utilized comic resources. She, in turn, is having an affair with an NSA operative, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who repeatedly reminds people that he’s never had to draw his gun.

Except, of course, that his gun is always in action, because Harry is a player who rarely seems to have any spare time between assignations with various women. (And, oh yes, he’s married to a successful children’s-book author.) The Coens don’t misuse Clooney as badly here as they did in “Intolerable Cruelty” or “O Brother, Where Are Thou?”, in which his incessant mugging was nearly unbearable. But he barely has a character to play here (though he does get to set up the movie’s biggest laugh, a shockingly juvenile dirty joke involving a home-made self-pleasuring chair for women).

If you’ve forgotten about Osbourne Cox by now, well, it’s hard to blame you – so has the movie. The plot, such as it is, centers on a lost CD-ROM, on which Cox’s financial data (and a pirated copy of his godawful memoir) are stored. Someone has left it on the floor in a fitness center locker room, and it’s pounced upon by two of the gym’s employees: Chad (Brad Pitt), a personal trainer, and Linda (Frances McDormand), the gym’s assistant manager.

They decide to ransom the disc to Cox: Chad because it makes him feel like he’s a character in a spy thriller, Linda because the potential ransom will pay for the various cosmetic surgeries for which her health insurance so callously has denied approval.

If all this sounds convoluted, consider this: When you boil it all down, Linda’s quest for a surgical makeover – to give her a better shot at finding a man – is what the movie is all about. But Linda is basically a comic foil, a proactive nudnik who isn’t afraid to sell secrets to the Russians if it will buy her that lipo that the insurance trolls have disapproved.

The Coens whip all of this to a fever pitch, spurred by ultra-dramatic score by Carter Burwell (which promises more and delivers less than any composer’s film score since Jonny Greenwood and “There Will Be Blood”). The idea is to build a Jenga tower of silly little pieces, each of which is supposed to withstand the dynamic tension being put on it by each additional  block. Pull one block out of the tower and the whole thing crashes down in a flurry of hilarious human foibles.

The humans in question conflate their personal relationship problems with matters of national security – much as the Coens mistake their own quirky taste for the humor of the bizarrely mundane with actual comedy. They’ve lavished care on this film but it all comes across as a plaything, an elaborately geared and motorized Erector Set construct, built to look like a movie.

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