Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Battle of the Aughts: James Frazier on Burn After Reading

When I reviewed “Burn After Reading” upon release, I rewarded it a 3.5 out of 5. I wrote “‘Burn After Reading,’ the latest film from the Coen Brothers, is a dark comedy and spy farce that unfolds like a chemical reaction, its plot elements combining, mixing, then igniting briefly before fizzing out.” I got it right until that last part.

“Burn After Reading” is a quintessential example of those films that work like a stick of dynamite with a long fuse, sitting there gently for a while until they explode in utter brilliance. I’m willing to forgive myself (and anyone else) for not catching the genius the first time around; the Coen Brothers’ assemble a script whose characters are all unlikeable, narcissistic buffoons, cast them with A-list talent, and unleashes them into a labyrinthine plot that mixes pathetic infidelity, meaningless espionage, and one bizarre home-made masturbatory implement. It’s a version of what Roger Ebert deemed the Idiot Plot, only the Coens intended for their characters to be as moronic as possible. The brothers, off a career high from the enormous critical and commercial success of “No Country For Old Men,” exhibit a fearless willingness to tell the story they want to. Not many auteurs would employ Brad Pitt as a dimwitted gym trainer that meets a shockingly unceremonious demise halfway through their story, but it’s that kind of nerve that makes their work go beyond unconventional and into the realm of subversive.

Detractors are prone to accusing the film of existing without meaning to its action, themselves accidentally tapping into the theme: that life’s a mess, nothing adds up to much, and we can all play the role of the fool. The closing dialogue between two confounded CIA observers sums it up:

CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer?
CIA Officer: I don't know, sir.
CIA Superior: I don't fuckin' know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.
CIA Officer: Yes, sir.
CIA Superior: I'm fucked if I know what we did.
CIA Officer: Yes, sir, it's, uh, hard to say
CIA Superior: Jesus Fucking Christ.

Life’s hilarious like that, sometimes.

- James Frazier

1 comment:

Elliott Broidy said...

I thought it was decent. But not a classic