Saturday, October 18, 2008

BURN AFTER READING - a bleak tragedy shoehorned into a screwball comedy format

...I'm not set up to mold hard rubber.BURN AFTER READING is a profound discussion of middle-aged angst - nihilistic, bleak, depressing - shoe-horned into the form of a typical Coen Brothers screwball comedy. It's as if the atmosphere of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN has infected THE BIG LEBOWSKI. The result is, unhappily, pretty painful to watch. It's a film in which unhappy people make bad choices, creating an mess that signifies nothing. As the lights went up, I wondered what I had just witnessed and the answer was, basically, the most wilfully mis-marketed film of the yar. Maybe that was the point - that underlying all comedy is tragedy. But, the odd laugh aside, it was neither as enjoyable as the great Coen Brothers comedies nor as profound as their best work. More superficially, without Roger Deakins at DP the film lacked visual flair - all the more noticeable since it is set in Washington DC and yet makes no use of that environment.

The plot of the movie, for what it's worth, is a caper gone wrong. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt play gym instructors who chance upon a CD containing "CIA secret shit". They use it to blackmail John Malkovich's CIA agent. Of course, he's a mess too - an alcoholic, fired from his job, being divorced by his wife (Tilda Swinton) who's cheating on him with a marshall (George Clooney) who is also sleeping with Frances McDormand's character, and himself being divorced. George Clooney's character is also deeply tragic - an insecure man who slips from woman to woman always looking for an audience to impress and signs of adoration. Wires get crossed, people die, characters become ever more desperate for love and whatever they think will make them complete. The CIA looks on in bewilderment, shovelling all the stupidity all under a rug and closing the manilla folder. What do we learn? That disillusionment lies ahead. That most things are empty and meaningless. All of which is fine subject for a movie, but why choose the comedy-caper as the vehicle for such a message and advertise with George Clooney pulling his trademark zany face and Brad Pitt with the trademark Coen Brothers crazy hair?

BURN AFTER READING played Venice 2008. It opens in the UK on September 12th; in the US on September 12th; in the Netherlands on September 18th; in Russia on October 2nd; in Spain on October 10th; in Australia on October 16th; in Norway on October 17th; in Finland on November 21st; in Belgium and France on December 10th.

1 comment:


    Hmmm, disagree.

    Yes, it was bleak. It was looking at the lives of people who were either deeply shallow, or deeply addicted. Of course it's going to be bleak.

    But it also managed to capture the comedy of it all.

    Take the scene where Malkovich sweats looking at the clock on the wall, desperately awaiting his 5pm justification. Yes, it's a tragically true depiction of an addict - go to any AA meeting you'll hear stories like this. But it's also funny - addictive behaviour, in its sad ridiculousness, is truly comic.

    Or sex addict Clooney's "machine" - and how he destroys it when he realises his wife is leaving. He's been banging 2 other women in the same 24 hours - and yet we so clearly see his fear and desperation at his abandonment which is the driver of his addiction. We see it again in his pathetic phone-call to his wife, when he runs from his would be lover. Sure, it's tragic. But the whole machine is so tragic it's funny, and his irrational destruction of it is hilarious, esp. as the dildo refuses to break.

    Or the woman selling government secrets for the money to get cosmetic surgery, thinking that the sexual attention of men will make her happy - all the time missing a man who truly loves her, and ends up dying for her, who is right in front of her nose. Yes, this body dysmorphia is tragic, but the results are, when you look at them objectively, hilarious.

    I think that the film aptly, if sadly, captures the comedy of the character defects, mistaken beliefs and dysfunctional behaviours of the people it portrays.

    My only downside is that it tries too hard to have a "different" narrative arc, thus the film is less a story than a bleak comment on middle-American life. At the end when the CIA bloke asks us what we have learnt from this, the answer really is "nothing" - no greater knowledge can be taken from the telling. Unlike Lebowski, where the story is unresolved but in a strange way complete, "Burn After Reading" has no heros, and only a boob-job for an ending.

    I'd still recommend it to friends though.