Movie Review for Burn After Reading (2008)

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Review #683 of 365
Movie Review of Burn After Reading (2008) [R] 96 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $12.25
Where Viewed: Cinemark Century 16, Lakewood, CO
When Seen: 17 September 2008 @ 5:05 pm
DVD Release Date: Unscheduled (please check back)
After the Credits: Nothing!

Soundtrack: Download now from Carter Burwell - Burn After Reading - or - order the CD below

Directed by: Ethan Coen () and Joel Coen (No Country for Old Men)
Written by: Joel Coen (Paris, je t'aime) • Ethan Coen (Paris, je t'aime)

Featured Cast (Where You Might Remember Him/Her From):
George Clooney (Leatherheads) • Frances McDormand (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) • Brad Pitt (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) • John Malkovich (Beowulf) • Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian ) • Richard Jenkins (Step Brothers) • David Rasche (Flags of Our Fathers) • J.K. Simmons (Rendition)

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Ok Coen Brothers Ethan and Joel, you won some Academy Awards® based on what was most certainly NOT last year's best movie and most certainly not your best directing job, so what next, though? How do you outdo yourselves? In my book, you could produce a coherent movie with your usually great characters and an ending that makes sense. You could. But would you? Yes, you did. Burn After Reading is coherent. It has some great, over-the-top characters and great acting performances particularly from Brad Pitt and John Malkovich. It's ending is quite passable and plausible as in that it came at the right time--there was pretty much nowhere else this film could go and it had dragged on long enough, and it didn't leave too many unanswered questions or leave the audience just sort of wondering what they had sat through—well, that might be overstated, probably many will be left wondering what they just sat through but fewer than the number who wondered after seeing No Country for Old Men (see footnote below).

… great acting performances particularly from Pitt and Malkovich.
So, then what went so terribly wrong with Burn After Reading if it complied with these expectations not met in NCfOM? As is almost always the case, a movie tends to rise and fall on its story. With NCfOM, the Coen Bros. used someone else's story, so they were stuck with it. With Burn After Reading, however, they wrote the story and had every opportunity to improve upon it. I'm going to guess that had they properly vetted this film before test audiences, they would have discovered the harsh reality that the story isn't very good or very interesting.

While the characters, some of them anyway, are, their lives aren't, what's going on in them isn't, and Burn After Reading might well actually be the Coen Bros. worst movie. You can vote on it in our poll on the right column through the end of the month (September 2008). I'm not a huge fan of any of their films with the exception of Fargo which is still one of my favorite movies of all time—not the favorite, but up there. In my mind, every movie they make is held to the Fargo test, and nothing they've ever done before or since comes even slightly close. And, when you look at their list of films, they've got some that are considered classics by a cult following, but most of their films never have meshed well with the mainstream—hence why they had to win last year and probably won't ever win again (especially if they continue to make movies like Burn After Reading). Now, all of this should be couched with a caveat.

… some hilarious moments—emphasis on moments …
Again, there are some hilarious moments—emphasis on moments as opposed to seconds, minutes, or scenes. There's also an incredibly shocking Coen Bros. moment that is difficult to shake from one's mind long after seeing the film. It's so horrific, terrifying, and undeserved—by definition…Joel and Ethan Coen. Nobody does Coen Bros. moments like the Coen Bros. though many have tried. In that, they are sort of the Truman Capote of films bringing a stinging reality of the world to their films that he did in the invention of true crime novels to the average reader. Both did/do it with the highest devotion to their craft. And, again, there are fine characters and performances. It's the dreaded story, however, that sinks this floundering ship. The ship, surely does flounder from the first scene to the last. It never really knows where it's heading. This is not a story that takes you on a journey. This is a film about a small group of people whose lives are nearly as interesting as any random people you might pick who swim in the bowl of Washington, D.C.'s power corridor. Some float longer before being flushed down the drain than others.

The players include: a bewildered CIA man, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), who is fired from his job in a scene that was done infinitely better by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson's War , and who then decides to write his memoirs despite his harpe pediatrician wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) getting all huffy that he won't have a job or income or way to keep her in her standard of living for which she obviously earns and pays the more of. She's having an affair, unbeknownst to him despite being a super spy, with a small time government dupe in the Treasury Department named Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) who unbeknownst to Katie has daily affairs with nearly every woman with whom he comes in any sort of even remote contact.

…a film that should probably have been Burned Before Exhibiting.
Well, this upper end of society collides head on with a cast at the bottom-dwelling end when Osborne's memoir files end up in the hands of trainers at a local heath club named Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) who confuse them for important, top-secret, spy information. They then try to blackmail Osborne into paying a lot of money for the getting the file back--she so she can pay for cosmetic surgeries she believes will improve her ability to attract a mate, and he because she says so. That is pretty much it. Where you going to go with that? The funniest scene comes when Chad phones Osborne to claim his "good Samaritan tax". The shocking scene come when Chad goes to Osborne's home not realizing his wife has long sense kicked him out for being a louse and he inadvertently runs into Harry. The events that follow make one wonder if the Coen Bros. were attempting to skewer the underbelly of power in the government or the stupidity of regular people—maybe both.

If there was a point really to the film, it got lost somewhere mid-swirl amidst the gurgling sounds and the refill with water now made blue by that special tablet added to the tank. If you want to:
• hear the 'F-bomb' launched over 50 times,
• see Richard Jenkins as a lonely gym manager former Orthodox Greek priest falling all over his co-worker Linda who all but puts his head in a noose by ignoring him,
• witness Frances McDormand doing her best not to lapse into her fantastic portrayal of Police Chief Marge Gunderson—the one that won her Best Actress in Fargo,
• see a mangy, strung-out looking George Clooney playing a horned-up-on-endorphins-from-jogging treasury guy turned ladies man,
• watch the aging Malkovich scamper from boat to home in his boxers as his pathetic character Osborne Cox uses an ax to get into his own home and ends up using it on an unexpected intruder,
• observe pointless repartee between a CIA officer (David Rasche) and his CIA Superior (J. K. Simmons) proving that, even in fictional stories, wasting government money is no great skill, or, finally,
• experience first hand what kind of movie you can make after winning the Academy Award® for Best Picture, and not have to worry about critics, the money, your longevity in the business, and so on, then see Burn After Reading—a film that should probably have been Burned Before Exhibiting. Otherwise, keep waiting for it. There is bound to be a film worth seeing this fall film season.

Footnote on No Country for Old Men slams
No Country for Old Menmight better have been called Old Country for No Men. Meanwhile, it's meteoric rise to Best Picture was quite honestly an opportunity for the Academy to acknowledge the body of work by the Coen Bros., to recognize independent film makers who choose non-mainstream productions, and to make good for their huge mistake with The Departed the year before which, also, was not the BEST picture of the year despite winning the award. After nearly 3 years of doing this solid, it is becoming ever more clear that the Academy Awards® are a political shell game awarding not the best, but the most adored by mainstream, as opposed to independent, film critics. Here's the thing. Voters don't have time to really see that many movies. Right? Come on, if you are making 3 movies in a year, how much time to you have to see movies? You might not even see the ones you were in. Meanwhile, film critics, that what we do. That's all we do is see movies. And we see a lot of them. I've seen well over 750 movies in the past two and ¾ years. That's a lot of movies. The average person sees 1 movie per month or 12 a year. I see an average of 20 per month. So, the Academy Award® voters don't have time to see that many movies, which is entirely understandable, so to whom do they look to see what they should see and then upon which to vote? Critics. That's the only logical thing to do. If you have to pare down a list of over 700 to 1000 films, that's what you do. You ask friends maybe, too, but mostly you rely on critics to do the narrowing. And, if the mainstream publication critics are pushing No Country for Old Men, well, guess what, you're going to watch it. And then you are going to wonder, "What? Huh? What did they see in this film? Oh, I know it's all about the art, oh yeah, and the performances, wasn't Javier so amazing?" No doubt he was, but he was also amazing in Love in the Time of Cholera which was (a) a better film, (b) a better story, (c) an unrecognized bunch of talent that the mainstream critics virtually ignored—maybe they didn't see it, who knows? So, they don't want to be the only one who didn't get No Country for Old Men, so they go along with the crowd. They don't say, "The critics are mad. I'm going to seek out other films. This one was lousy." Which is what they should do. And, the critics were mad on this decision to support this film. It simply wasn't that great. So, my advice to the voting members of the Academy would be to do a couple of other things in selecting which movies to watch before the nominations: (a) read some independent film critic web sites—sure like this one, I'm not too bashful, (b) check out the box office numbers—sure some movies do well because they are stupid and some people like to spend their money on stupid movies, but that's not the majority of people and those aren't the majority of the movies that do well, (c) ask your most average friends which movies they've seen this year that they actually remember seeing. You know, it's kind of funny, but if people only see 12 movies a year, you'd think they'd be able to rattle them off the tip of their tongue. But, I've asked a ton of people over the years, and most people cannot remember most of the movies they've seen let alone all 12. Therefore, any that do stand out, stood out for a reason—maybe they were horrible, or maybe they were excellent. Compare all three sources and then make your selections. You might be very surprised that the lists don't overlap well with the mainstream critics' lists. You might also be surprised that, maybe for the first time ever, you are actually seeing what really were the best films of the year rather than the pet peeve projects of mainstream film critics who get paid, by the way, big bucks to write their reviews. Even if they aren't influenced by all the free swag they get from studios, even if they aren't impressed by their free admission, reserved seating, and royal treatment, even if they aren't cognizant of who signs their paycheck, in other words NBC-Universal own NBC and releases Universal Studios films, they have their own erudite opinions on things that eventually end up in clouding their judgment as to the quality or lack thereof of certain films. Hence, maybe, why the last 3 straight years, my top 5 films of the year haven't even been nominated for Best Picture.

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Cast Members
George ClooneyFrances McDormandBrad Pitt
John MalkovichTilda SwintonRichard Jenkins
David RascheJ.K. Simmons
Ethan Coen () and Joel Coen
Joel CoenEthan Coen

Review-lite Burn After Reading (2008) [max of 150 words]
Despite some hilarious moments, unfortunately, the Coen Bros. do not do it again. While the story is more coherent than No Country for Old Men, the story is far less interesting and nearly as pointless. It ends rather unspectacularly with even the characters not being sure what just happened—so how will the audience respond? Probably not to favorably. Brad Pitt and John Malkovich stood out in the grat category, while Frances McDormand just has to work too hard not to slip in previous characters. You're likely to find yourself wanting out of the theatre early and on want to tell anyone you saw thig thing.

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1 comment:

movie buff said...

Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he's not taking himself too seriously... i could see how this movie would make good use of his, habitual, spastic arm movements