Burn After Reading
A Film by Joel and Ethan Coen
The new film from Joel and Ethan Coen is a contemporary re-visiting of the "Comedy of Manners" that examines (and skewers) some facets of American society in the first decade of the 21st Century. With a stellar cast working well together, they once again present an alternative version of reality that somehow resonates with our own.
Sartre said, "We can't know reality - but we can learn something about it by changing it." The Coen brother's idiosyncratic takes on everything from film noir (The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn't There) to Depression era road movies (O Brother Where Art Thou) to Classic Gangster films (Miller's Crossing) have cast light on how Hollywood imagines America, and how that imagining shapes our own - who we think we are, and who we are.
This latest film takes on a variety of Popular Culture icons - including the physical fitness and body-image craze, the whole concept of "intelligence gathering," (the tag line is, "Intelligence is relative.") and marriage American-Style. It highlights the ridiculous in all these subject areas and encourages us to laugh (if somewhat painfully and ruefully) at ourselves.
The plot involves two separate threads which become intertwined. Gun-toting Treasury Department "security" employee Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) is having an affair with tightly-wound pediatrician, Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton). She is tired of her marriage to mid-level CIA "intelligence analyst" Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) and is planning to divorce him. Adding to her domestic frustration is the fact that Ozzie - in the face of a humiliating demotion, quits his well-paying job.
Ozzie plans to get even by writing a "tell-all" memoir, revealing the stupidity and venality in the agency he has just left, but he is overcome by inertia. As Katie's and Harry's affair heats up, she plans to throw Ozzie out, and on the advice of her lawyer copies his financial records - and all his files - off of his computer on the sly. The lawyer's secretary inadvertently loses a copy of the disk in the locker room of her gym, where it is found by a maintenance man and given to Personal Trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), who mistakes it for classified information and shares the find with his co-worker, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and gym manager Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins)
Chad and Linda, who are not the sharpest pencils in the box, soon get themselves involved in a nonsensical blackmail scheme which quickly spins out of control. Ozzie becomes increasingly unhinged as his life unravels and he loses his home and wife in addition to his job, and Harry's womanizing (including his seduction of Linda) finally gets him into the trouble he deserves - and then some. The character's lives collide in spectacular ways that are funny, but with a Waugh-like sense of dislocation that is also disturbing.
Along the way, the Coens use their favorite device of small sub-plots to make trenchant and piercing commentary on life and mores. One of the most excruciatingly funny scenes involves Katie and her divorce lawyer - played with relish by J.R. Horne. A well-dressed, -fed and -educated "sleaze-bag" of the first water, he justifies the punch lines of every lawyer joke you've ever heard. But there's also a more serious sub-text about the amorality, the lack of ethical bearings that pervades his, and all the characters' lives. None of them, from the most sophisticated to the simplest, can tell right from wrong.
At one end of the continuum there's the institutionalized and sanctioned "wrongdoing" of a representation of a CIA that is more interested in "protecting its interests" than in the disastrous effects it has on people's lives or the moral implications of its actions. It has taken "the ends justify the means" to the absurd limit.
At he other is the clueless Chad who thinks blackmail is "cool," and insecure Linda, whose self-absorption rules her life. Even the one character who seems to have an inkling that there ought to be some moral limits - Gym Manger Ted - ends up selling out his scruples for the hope of getting close to Linda. The world the Coen's are delineating is one where an absurd - but chillingly recognizable - extreme of self-interest and self-indulgence is the standard for behavior.
Along the way they poke fun at Chad's addiction to his iPod and his mindless attachment to body-consciousness, which mirrors Linda's obsession with surgically remaking herself in the image of some imagined "beauty." The unfeeling bureaucratic mentality of institutions - of which Ozzie is a mal-contented but resigned part until it turns on him - comes in for plenty of ridicule, as does the whole romantic notion of "espionage" - stood on its head by a CIA composed of petty, confused, drones fixated on keeping their jobs above all.
J.K Simmons, in a wonderful cameo as a CIA administrator to whom the others report, whose name and title remain nebulous, sums it up. Looking back over the whole convoluted mess,with dead bodies disposed of and the surviving characters' lives in turmoil he asks, rhetorically, "What have we learned from all this?" and answers his own question, "I guess we've learned not to do that again - whatever the hell it was we did in the first place."
This absurdist logic is both "nonsense" and also a deeply-disturbing commentary on a solipsistic modern sensibility - from the highest reaches of our society to the lowest - that is content to lurch from crisis to crisis, with no objective other than self-preservation. no interest save self-interest and no sense of empathy nor community with others.
The script, which the Coen brothers wrote, as they generally do, is very well-crafted. That the wildly complicated plot (except within the skewed logic of the film itself) doesn't make sense is just another layer of reflection on how modern Americans are content to live their lives wrapped in randomness and incoherence.. The dialogue is appropriately muddled and ineffective - from the meaningless corporate-speak of the CIA to the small-talk at Katie and Ozzie's party, to Harry's glib and charming lies, to the tortured exchanges between Linda and Ted, people talk without being able to say anything real, which is fine, because nobody is listening.
The actors have taken this script and the whole concept and given it life. If that process has something of the macabre in it - of Zombies or Frankenstein's Monster, the "living dead" - perhaps that's also part of the point the Coens are seeking to make. This excellent ensemble makes the most of the material creating a cast of characters who - with the exception of the hapless Ted - are not "bad" - such an idea has no place in their world - but awful in the most banal and ordinary ways possible.
George Clooney plays on his charm and good looks to invest Harry with a deadly combination of vanity and manipulativeness - knowing how to appeal to the vanity of others. Clooney exposes the superficiality and over-compensation of the Lothario in a way that is achingly funny. John Malkovitch imbues Ozzie with a similar vanity - not that of the good-looking charmer, but that of the guy who thinks he is always the smartest man in the room. Clinging to the glory days of his Princeton education and his conviction that he is surrounded by idiots, with no imagination nor sense of humor, he is riding hard for the fall he creates for himself.
Frances McDormand's Linda is a sad case, beset by low self -esteem and desperately looking outside herself for something she can change to make everything right. She's bought in to the American Dream that if you don't like yourself, you can make yourself whatever you want to be - with devastating consequences for those around her. She'll do anything, sacrifice anyone, to "keep her dream alive." Brad Pitt does a devastating job of embodying Chad, a mindless creature of pop culture - only half a step up from a slacker - whose world revolves around "fitness" in an abstract sense, without any inkling of asking "fit for what?" He keeps himself distracted with his iPod, his job and his routines with no greater objective than to travel in style and comfort down that six-lane American expressway David Byrne characterized as "the road to nowhere."
Richard Jenkins does his usual fine work, making Ted, whose weakness isn't vanity and selfishness, but rather loneliness, the only vaguely sympathetic character in the film. Tilda Swinton creates Katie as a soulless, ambitious, driven shell of a woman whose achievements and relationships have meaning only as trophies in some complex game she is inventing for herself. She has a deliciously perverse scene in her pediatric examining room where the anger and need for control that drive her suddenly emerge with all the shock value of The Alien erupting from an unsuspecting crewman's chest.
One of the hallmarks of the Coen brothers' work is attention to detail, and each and every performer here makes a significant contribution to the totality of the film. Likewise, the crew, most of whom have come to be "regulars" on the Coens' sets, know what is needed and provide it. The sets and design are great, from the endless, echoing corridors of CIA headquarters to Ozzie's and Katie's art-tchotchke-filled Georgetown home, to Linda's austere apartment and Harry-the-Rake's aggressively bourgeois "family home."
The camera-work from DoP Emmanuel Lubezki keeps up with the action while underscoring some of the film's themes, as when low-angle shots of suit clad legs and polished shoes striding through the corridors of the CIA recall establishing shots in scores of the espionage and police dramas whose conventions the Coens turn inside out. Carter Burwell's original score likewise effectively evokes the tension-raising conventions of "spy dramas," as well as echoes of "sit-com" themes. The selection of other music - which always plays an important part in the Coens' films - is equally apt and resonant.
To bring this kind of social satire to the screen in a way that is laugh-out-loud funny yet offers an oblique connection to deeper and more disturbing themes that might be overwhelming if presented directly shows a deft talent and a thoughtful sensitivity. The Coen brothers are among the best filmmakers of their generation. When they hit their stride - as they do in Burn After Reading - they provide powerful movie-going experiences. Over the course of their career they haven't been afraid to experiment and there have been some slight mis-steps along the way, but this is not one of them. Their best films just keep getting better and better.
That's my take on it. What's yours?