Saturday, August 11, 2018

Re-coen-sidering: Burn After Reading

This is the fourth in my 2018 bi-monthly series in which I’m re-examining the films of Joel and Ethan Coen that didn’t work so well for me the first time. This particular installment will contain SPOILERS.

When I held the box of Burn After Reading, which I’d borrowed from the library only that afternoon, in my hand on Thursday night, I looked at it and couldn’t help thinking: “God I hate this fucking movie.”

That gives you a little idea what this 2008 film was up against, even still, nearly ten years after I first saw it.

It had not only been my least favorite Coen movie, it was my least favorite by a significant margin, and the only film of theirs that was firmly in thumbs down territory. I might have gone as low as 2.5 stars on one of their other films, but even that is only mildly negative -- as close to a marginal recommendation as you can get, and the kind of thing that might be overturned to three stars in a series like this.

That’s not what we’re talking about with Burn After ReadingBurn After Reading was in possession of only a single star on Letterboxd, and I did not think there was much chance it would go up.

Well, that’s why I do series like this.

Burn After Reading will still be my least favorite Coen brothers movie, unless the last two movies I watch this year take a significant turn downward on second viewing. But it might be worthy of as much as twice the original star rating I gave it.

The first time I watched this movie, I just could not abide by its cynicism. I didn’t like the misanthropy inherent in the Coens killing off the two most likeable characters (played by Brad Pitt and Richard E. Jenkins), while the rest of the characters were blowhard assholes, blithe philanderers, narcissistic ditzes or self-satisfied masochists. (The latter is the best way I could think to quickly describe the CIA guys played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, who just want an expedient solution to everything regardless of who gets squashed in the process.) Some of those people do come to bad ends, but not all. I don’t expect the Coens to be paragons of humanism, because they’ve never been that, but I do expect a little bit of heart, of which I get none in this movie.

Ten years later, I guess I must be more cynical myself, as this did not bother me as much this time around. There are sacrificial lambs in the real world, and there are monsters who profit from them. Having a wicked sense of humor about those things is not inherently bad. And, I felt the plot worked a little better for me this time, the interconnections seeming a little more clever, even if the cast is going round and round in circles regarding imaginary intelligence and threats that only exist in their own head. That central absurdity felt a bit more useful to me this time as well.

I still don’t really like spending time with these characters, and maybe that’s the more germane similarity between the perspectives of the 44-year-old me and the 35-year-old me. Not only are most of the characters unlikable, but they are pitched at different levels. Frances McDormand, for one, is going over-the-top in a way that feels more consistent with something like O Brother Where Art Thou?, which is more of a fable than a realistic presentation of real people. Brad Pitt and George Clooney are a bit like that as well. Then you have John Malkovich, who is an incredible asshole but is not going over-the-top in the sense that his performance doesn’t have quotation marks around it. He’s giving us a realistic depiction of his fury, rather than a cartoon one. So performers like Malkovich, Jenkins and Tilda Swinton feel like they’re in one movie while McDormand, Pitt and Clooney feel like they’re in another. Either could work, but combined, it creates tonal awkwardness.

Now that this series has reacquainted me with two collaborations between the Coens and George Clooney, and one more still to come, I can’t help but reach the conclusion that these two creative perspectives are not a good match. Or at least, not the way the brothers typically deploy Clooney. Clooney could/should play roles like Gabriel Byrne plays in Miller’s Crossing, not roles where he bugs out his eyes and has lots of tics. He’s misused by the Coens in a way similar to how Tom Hanks was misused in June’s movie, The Ladykillers. I have an incredible amount of fondness for George Clooney, but I think I want him to play GEORGE CLOONEY, or someone with only a small or superficial variation on that. Three of his four collaborations with the Coens are misses for me, though we’ll revisit the third one of those in December, so I’ll withhold a final ruling on that until then. The one movie he’s made with them that I like better, Intolerable Cruelty, is one that most other people don’t like – and that I liked a bit less on my second viewing a few years back.  

But before we get to that heretofore unnamed December movie – which people with a knowledge of the Coens and the chronological nature of my project will have already guessed – I will tackle True Grit in October.

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