Burn After Reading (2008)
Dir: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Burn after watching!
I like the Coen brothers normally, but somehow I just didn’t get this at all. I hope I’m not being overly unfair, but a film critic has no truth other than their own opinion when reviewing a film, and the truth of my opinion in this case was that it was a huge disappointment.
‘Burn After Reading’ is ostensibly about a CIA man Osborne Cox, who quits his job and starts filling his time with writing his memoirs about his time with the agency. However, when his wife contemplates leaving him, she copies all the files from his computer to disc which then ends up left at a gym. When gym workers find the disc and realise there’s sensitive information on it, they originally intend to get it back to the rightful owner, Osborne, but through a badly toned phone call they end up blackmailing him. Which then leads to a complex series of events that get more and more confusing and dangerous for all involved.
At the beginning of the film it didn’t feel like the a Coen comedy at all, the tone was completely different and almost felt quite serious. Bumbling crooks are a common Coen element, and so when all that got going it started feeling a lot more like their style, however it fell short of the thing that usually makes their idiotic criminals work. The Coen brothers often infuse a madcap and quirky energy to their characters, especially criminals, which brings out the full scope of the comedic properties of these characters. There was nowhere near enough of that in this case.
Another problem is that there’s no main lead character or characters to focus on, for example ‘Raising Arizona’ has the main couple who we quickly side with, ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ has Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ has the men who form the Soggy Bottom Boys who are lovable rogues. In ‘Burn After Reading’ everyone is interconnected by the end, and though it starts with Osborne Cox, the film then shifts to the blackmailing gym workers (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), then there’s philandering Harry (George Clooney) who has at least 3 women on the side as well as his wife. None of these characters takes centre stage for very long, and has the development of a portmanteau film rather than a full feature, therefore we never get to like any of them enough.
In the latter part of the film some CIA workers have to report developments in the confusing situation to their superior (J. K. Simmons) which feels like wasteful exposition just to keep the audience on track, or possibly trying to be clever. However, it is Simmons’ character who sums the whole film up firstly by telling them to “report back to me when it makes sense” which it never really does, and then eventually admitting that nobody knows quite what can be learnt from just happened.
Neither do I.