Monday, September 22, 2008

Freezer "Burn"


directed and written by Joel & Ethan Coen
starring John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons

How does one categorize the Coen brothers’ brand of comedy? It’s satirical, but it isn’t satire. It isn’t slapstick, though it gets major mileage out of physical gags. It often takes pitch-dark turns, yet to call it black comedy is to downplay the basic, almost screwball goofiness that makes up its driving energy. There’s a kind of cold cheerfulness about the Coen comedic universe that draws in the viewer just enough to be amused, but generally not enough to empathize with any of its subjects. Watching a Coen brothers comedy is like looking out on a sunny, subzero winter’s day from the window of one’s comfortably heated home. And their latest entry in the genre is no exception to the pattern.

“Burn After Reading” is, more than anything else, a carefully orchestrated clusterfuck. The trigger is a foul-mouthed, fouler-tempered ex-CIA agent, Osborne Cox (Malkovich) who misplaces a CD containing drafts of his memoirs of his less-than-storied career. The CD is picked up and its contents inspected by some dimwitted gym employees, two of whom (McDormand and Pitt) decide it must be “highly classified shit” and, ergo, their ticket to big money. First they try to blackmail Cox; then they try to sell it to “the Russians." Hijinks and complications ensue, especially when McDormand’s character, Linda Litzke, gets involved with a (married) U.S. marshal and serial philanderer Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), who’s also schtupping Osborne Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton, in full glacial mode). Even the CIA weighs in at intervals, its growing bewilderment represented chiefly by the excellent J.K. Simmons.

What results is a perfect roundelay of human bumbling, and per usual, the Coens pull no punches highlighting the absurdity of these poor schmucks and the welter of self-deception in which each of them subsists. That’s not to say the film doesn’t show occasional flickers of humanity, as when it tracks middle-aged Linda on one of her unsuccessful blind dates, which isn’t awkward so much as utterly forlorn, or underscores her total obliviousness to the fact that her boss (a sweetly ineffectual Richard Jenkins) has an unrequited crush on her. And Pitt, who’s hilarious as Linda’s numbskull second, Chad Feldheimer, is also surprisingly endearing, despite—or perhaps because of—Chad’s impenetrable, almost self-satisfied, air of fatuousness.

But there’s no getting around it: the Coens are hard on their characters, and it’s not a good idea to get too attached to any of them. Justice, to put it mildly, is not equally served on all parties. And yet it’s not altogether fair to call the creators mean-spirited. For one thing, the characters, while sharply sketched, are closer to being archetypes of human folly than three-dimensional persons anyone's likely to identify with to any significant degree. They are more interesting for how their fates intertwine and affect each other—not unlike the workings of some elaborate Rube Goldberg device—than they are in their individual capacities. At its core “Burn After Reading” is pure situational comedy, and I don’t mean in the sense of “Friends” or “How I Met Your Mother,” though its rhythms are oddly reminiscent, of all things, of “Frasier.” It has the feeling of, at best, a virtuosic chamber piece, and at worst, a virtuosic puppet show. However one chooses to regard it, there’s no denying it’s neatly executed entertainment.



Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

Well, you have a kinder opinion of the movie than I have.

Perhaps within a few years it will grow on me. But for now, I must admit that my initial reaction to the movie was: "That's it? That's what all the fuss was about?"

And this from someone who liked Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou?

As well as Frasier...

10:19 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

I may have been a little too generous. But on its own terms, the movie works - at least for me. I think at some level we're *supposed* to come away wondering "That's what all the fuss was about?"

3:37 AM  

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