Monday, October 20, 2008

Movie Notes: Burn After Reading (2008)

I'm not sure what superior life form the Coen brothers belong to, but they sure do have a dim opinion of us humans. The characters in their films are generally deluded, confused, hopeless and much smaller in the scheme of things than they realize. Of course, this is the common state of things in comedy, and probably in life.

Don't get me wrong- their newest film Burn After Reading is funny, but it's funny in a somewhat dour way. Everyone in the film is cheating on their spouse, pursuing ridiculous schemes that can't possibly go right; hell, it's not even clear that anything going on is particularly important. Appropriately enough, the film ends with a CIA head trying to make heads or tails of what's gone before and finding it all totally baffling.

A parody of spy thrillers, Burn After Reading is entertaining because, in all of the heated cloak and dagger, the stakes are so low. George Clooney, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Francis McDormand, and Brad Pitt all play exaggerated versions of their usual characters in a fairly convoluted story of crosses, double-crosses, and infidelity. Like The Big Lebowski, the characters keep making their situations more convoluted and troublesome through their personal problems and the story gets progressively funnier as things go on. Brad Pitt, in particular, is extremely amusing in this.

Some people don't care for the Coens' comedies, or consider them to be lesser than the dramas, but I consider them to be of a sort with the dramas. John Goodman's character in The Big Lebowski is, in many ways, one of their darkest characters. And Marge Gunderson in Fargo is one of the sweetest and funniest. They know how to shift tones within the stories as well- here there is a murder that pulls the rug out from under you; I have a friend who found The Big Lebowski to be an edge-of-the-seat thriller.

In general, I'd say this is one of their better films- certainly better than Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers- but not one of the best. It's a trifle; not that there's anything wrong with that.

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