Monday, September 15, 2008

Movies: Burn After Reading

Having just seen four incredibly lush Coen films just weeks ago, I set myself up for disappointment on a grand scale when I went to see their new sterile CIA farce.

The best Coen characters are sympathetic weirdos, but the Burn After Reading crowd is short on quirks and sympathy alike. Worse, we can never shake the feeling that we're watching a number of very famous actors, because none of them embody their role so much as take a role that sums our expectations for them: Tilda Swinton is an icy reprise of herself in Michael Clayton, married to John Malkovich, a cussing loose cannon, and having an affair with George Clooney, the happy-go-lucky, fast-talking philanderer of O Brother and Intolerable Cruelty; Brad Pitt is the gum-snapping mimbo he's never actually played but everyone expects he actually is, and Frances McDormand is his health-club coworker and buddy, an insecure, desperately lonely woman whose small mind is filled with big aspirations (plastic surgery and from there, love).

The plot is a snowballing comedy of errors, instigated when Pitt finds a CD-R containing Malcovich's memoirs and mistakes it for confidential intelligence, and he and McDormand partner to try and turn it into money—first by extortion from Malcovich, and, once that doesn't work, by selling it to the Russians (which, in theses post-Cold War times, is nonsensical). Meanwhile, Swinton is ready to finally divorce Malcovich (who has quit his job over his drinking problem and now spends his days pattering about in slippers and a housecoat, "working" on his memoir) and marry long-time lover Clooney, who has moved in with her temporarily while his wife is traveling on a book tour. McDormand sends Pitt, dressed in a suit, to sneak into Malcovich's house and obtain more "intelligence;" it's there that Clooney finds him and shoots him dead. Somewhere along the way, Clooney and McDormand spend a few nights together as well. Things get very messy but ultimately are all smoothed over from the perspective of J.K. Simmons in his CIA superior's office: everyone involved in the mess is killed except McDormand who, for agreeing to secrecy, is paid off in plastic surgery.

There are, of course, careful Coen touches along the way. Swinton wears two necklaces at all times—one gold link and one pearl (a fashion faux pas, but one which represents neatly her simultaneous relationships with two men). Clooney brings a royal purple, velveteen-covered wedge pillow to Swinton's house; we later see it in their unmade bed and then, when they fight and he leaves, he takes the pillow with him. Pitt's character is pitch-perfect, start-to-finish, from his fist pumps while running on the treadmill, white iPod earbuds dangling, to his insistence on riding his bike, even while wearing a suit, to meet Malcovich for the first time, to his request to "hydrate" when he shows up at McDormand's apartment late one night, to his slurping on a Jamba Juice while staking out Swinton's house. We are sorry to see him go and, when he dies, most of our investment in the film dies along with him, whatever little there was.

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