A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 284 – Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading – December 9th, 2010

When this movie was coming out in theaters I remember seeing previews for it and they were utterly baffling. They didn’t seem to know exactly how to sell it. Was it a comedy? Was it about espionage? Was it murder mystery? Who knew? All I could really tell from the previews was the cast, which looked amazing, and that it was a Coen Brothers movie and therefore probably thoroughly bizarre. And what do you know? I was right. This movie is almost as baffling as the previews, except it isn’t trying to present itself as anything in particular. Like every other Coen Brothers movie I’ve ever seen, it just is.

The plot here is quite complex in its specifics but the root of it is in a couple of simple points: A bunch of people are sleeping around with each other, one of them is a former CIA analyst, and one of them really wants the money for some cosmetic surgery. Sound nonsensical? It is! In fact, through the whole movie, while supposedly classified information is falling into the wrong hands and people are blackmailing other people and affairs are happening and people are being followed, two men in the CIA are tracking all the events in astonishment. They’re sort of the audience’s stand-ins inside the movie, stating for us that this is just plain ridiculous. It makes no sense. And in the end when it’s all over? Well, they’ve learned not to do this again. If only they knew what it was they’d done. I can only imagine what they’d have made of the nihilists in The Big Lebowski.

But really, the specifics are wild. This plot could have been played straight. It could have been utterly serious, with extortion and state secrets and all. But that wouldn’t be Joel and Ethan Coen’s thing. So instead we get this. Linda Litzke, a woman who works at a gym, believes she is in need of a good deal of cosmetic surgery in order to find a man. And she wants to find a man. That’s the next step in her life. Really, Linda’s the catalyst here. Sure, there are the Coxes, Osborne and Katie. And sure, there’s Harry, who’s sleeping with Katie but also married and then sleeping with Linda too later on. And they’d all end up tangled together anyhow. And then there’s Osborne’s memoirs from his days in the CIA as an analyst. But only when a CD with a copy of the memoirs falls into Linda’s hands do things get bad. Her coworker, the affable doofus Chad, wants to simply hand the CD over and hopefully get a reward. Unfortunately the CD belongs to Osborne, who’s a total douche, and Linda really wants some money. And thus we have an extortion and espionage plot that’s over some truly trivial information.

Linda’s a bit of a Typhoid Mary in this movie. It’s sort of a theme I’ve noticed in Coen Brothers movies that innocents tend to get hurt or die. Sad, but true. And here it’s all linked back to Linda. The two nicest characters in the movie are Chad and one of Linda’s other coworkers, Ted. And they get hurt. Sorry to spoil things, but this is a Coen Brothers movie. It all goes back to Linda, really. Without her insistence that the CD with Osborne’s memoirs get used for extortion none of the really nasty stuff would have happened. Of course, there’s a lot more going on, but Linda’s at the heart of it all.

I honestly don’t think this movie could have worked without the cast it had. Indeed, apparently every major role except Katie Cox was written specifically for the actor cast. Frances McDormand plays Linda and does a fantastic job with her. She’s frustrated and a little angry and desperate for life to pick up for her. She’s a little mousy and hates it. George Clooney plays Harry, who gets some fantastic wild-eyed paranoia eventually. John Malkovitch plays Osborne and, as he says in one of the documentaries on the DVD, he spends a good amount of his time on screen screaming at people. He’s an out of control jackass and Malkovitch is not shy about playing him to the hilt. Richard Jenkins plays Ted, who has a thing for Linda and oh, oh do I feel for him. Jenkins is in a quiet role here, because Ted’s all about not saying what he wants to say. He gets a little overshadowed by the louder and flashier roles, but really, I felt for him as soon as he showed his hand. Because I knew what was coming for him. And then rounding out the cast are my two favorite performances: Tilda Swinton as Katie Cox and Brad Pitt as Chad. Chad is, as I mentioned, a doofus. He’s dorky and over-animated and not very bright, but he’s a nice guy and he’s just trying to help out Linda. And Brad Pitt totally threw himself into every ridiculous moment of that character’s performance. Swinton, on the other hand, is totally buttoned up as Katie. I love her. I love that she gets off relatively unscathed. I love the reveal as to what she does for a living. It’s an amazing ensemble cast, almost all either playing people who aren’t terribly likable or playing people who aren’t terribly smart.

It is a baffling movie in many ways. The CIA agents who frame the rest of the action provide some great commentary on it all as well as some great throw-away humor of their own, but they’re right. What the hell just happened really? And how can you avoid it when you have no idea how it happened, or what it meant? At least, you know, it’s over. And nothing serious was at stake anyhow. After all, they took trivial information to the Russians. Who does that? Linda Litzke. That’s who. And all she really wanted was a couple of surgical procedures. Is that too much to ask?

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December 9, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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