Burn After Reading (2008)

Life is funny, isn't it?  You can try to make sense of things, but sometimes it's best to just sweep things under the rug and move right along to the next thing.

At least, that's the impression I left with after seeing BURN AFTER READING, the new film from the Coen Brothers, and an interesting choice coming off the heels of last year's multi-award winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.  The final film in their "Idiot Trilogy" starring George Clooney, BURN AFTER READING is a slice-of-life served up with very little in the way of judgment or interpretation, instead presenting a series of misadventures surrounding a computer disc ("PC, not"Mac" as noted in the film) that may or may not contain the memoirs of a disgraced CIA analyst.

But like the best Hitchcock movies, the disc isn't the story at all, rather it's the MacGuffin which allows us to view the absurd lives of the people who become affected by its presence.  To summarize the plot doesn't do any service to the movie: people find the disc, attempt to get money in exchange for not releasing the information, and fail utterly.  But life, like BURN AFTER READING, is more than just a simple story arc.  It's a messy, often tragic and hilarious series of events and circumstances that, taking on its own with context, ultimately means nothing.  The biggest laugh in the movie comes from Clooney's reveal of a machine he's been building in his basement, but what impressed me more than the laugh was how incredibly tense and fearful everyone in the audience was leading up to the big reveal.  The scene, in which the married Clooney goes on a blind date with Frances McDormand's plastic surgery obsessed Linda Litzke, Clooney leads her down to the basement to view his accomplishment.  It's a terrifying moment, and time and again throughout the film the Coens play with expectation, manipulating your feelings one way only to do a complete reversal.  And time and again they manage to do it without telegraphing a single hint.

A few days after seeing it, I'm still trying to get my head around everything.  I haven't mentioned how loathsome (and great) John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton are as the CIA analyst and his wife who get the ball rolling.  Or how wonderful JK Simmons is in his small but pivotal role as the CIA chief who really just wishes this business with the disc would just go away.  There's a scene that follows a pair of feet through the halls of Langely as information about the disc travels, and it's brilliant not only for it's visual composition, but for the sound design as the footsteps echo differently in different places.

And Frances McDormand is, well, Frances McDormand.  She's brilliant, and more than any other actor knows how to deliver Coen Brother dialog.  If there's an arc in this story it's hers, but where it goes will surprise you.

I could keep going, but there's really no point.  BURN AFTER READING is vintage Coen Brothers, and either you'll go for it or you won't.  I left feeling like it was on the lower spectrum of their films (comparable in quality to THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, although perhaps closer in tone to FARGO - only not as good) but a day or two's reflection coupled with some conversation with friends has warmed it in my mind.