Friday, September 12, 2008

From the Archive: "Burn After Reading" Film Review

Film Rating: A-

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “Burn After Reading.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Burn After Reading”
Originally published September 12th, 2008

You can never predict what a Coen Brothers movie will be like.  They are some of the most wildly diverse filmmakers in Hollywood, and this has never been more apparent than it is in Burn After Reading, a complex film about…nothing.

And when I say that this film is about nothing, I say that with the highest praise possible.  The staggering amount of unrelated topics (the CIA, internet dating, physical fitness, alcoholism, and sex addictions, just to name a few) the film touches upon come together to form an endlessly complex plot that is ridiculously fun to follow.  Only the most truly gifted writers could combine all the various plots and themes that this story touches upon, and for a while, I was in awe at this achievement of writing. 

But about halfway through the film, it becomes apparent that the movie isn’t going anywhere.  It doesn’t have a point to make, and in the end, these unrelated topics are truly random.  But the Coen Brothers know this; they planned it, and they revel in it. No Country For Old Men, their last film, was dark as night, a deep meditation on the evils of our world.  Burn is pure screwball comedy, with enough ridiculous content to make you laugh as people are brutally murdered.  No Country has a point, a purpose, which it hammered home with intensity.  Burn has no purpose, and hammers that fact home with equal intensity.  

I won’t try to describe the plot; it’s far too complex for me to do justice to, and you truly need to experience it for yourself.  Not even the characters can figure the story out; there are two scenes featuring a CIA boss played by J.K. Simmons, who, with an assistant, tries to piece together this fragmented mess of an event (Simmons uses a colorful term in the second of these sequences that very accurately describes the film, but I can’t repeat it here).  It’s a pristine example of self-awareness, something the Coen Brothers are masters at.   

Burn features a number of terrific, unforgettable performances, and Brad Pitt is the best of the bunch.  I think Brad Pitt is a great actor whose talents are underrated because of his gossip-rich romantic life; he’s done an excellent job in a number of films, and this might well be his best performance yet.  I was laughing hard every second he was on screen.  Pitt plays Chad Feldheimer, a personal fitness trainer being manipulated by his friend Linda, played by Francis McDormand.  Chad is a loveable goof, and Pitt inflects so many nuances and creative characteristics into Chad that the character simply jumps off the screen.  Pitt deserves some sort of major award; not an Oscar, but at least a Golden Globe.

As great performances in the film go, John Malkovich comes in at a close number two with his hilarious portrayal of a very angry CIA analyst named Osborne Cox.  He’s quits after being demoted, and writes a memoir of his experiences with the agency, which eventually ends up in the hands of Chad and his friend Linda (through a process far too confusing to recount here).  Malkovich’s dialogue is masterfully written, and only an actor of his caliber could deliver it.  He’s a hoot, delivering some truly side-splitting lines. 

George Clooney’s role is that of Harry Pfarrer, a womanizing, sex addicted U.S. Marshall.  Clooney’s acting here shows that he is an expert of his trade.  Few actors could make us sympathize with this man, and while he does some despicable things, I never once felt animosity towards the man.  It’s as though forces beyond his control are compelling him along, and Clooney captures this perfectly. 

Tilda Swinton’s role is akin to her Michael Clayton role, but even icier and despicable.  Swinton is an expert at that kind of performance.  Francis McDormand plays Linda Litzke, whose moronic dreams keep all the ridiculous events going.  Linda is addicted to internet dating, and wants to sell Osborne Cox’s secrets so she can pay for four kinds of plastic surgery.       

Yes, the plot of this film is driven by a desire for plastic surgery.  That statement alone should tell you what kind of movie Burn After Reading is.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Burn features one of the most complex, multi-layered plots I’ve ever witnessed, and yet, it’s all pointless.  As such, I can totally understand why someone wouldn’t like this movie.  After all, it demands that you be able to find humor in murder, to let logic slip away.  It’s screwball comedy at its finest, and is thus suited to a certain taste.  That taste is not for everyone; the death of one character in particular will make this one of the more divisive films of late.

But that taste is one I posses; as such, Burn After Reading is one of my favorite films of the year.  If it sounds like your kind of movie, then quit reading this and go see it now.  It’s a can’t miss film, a comedy that is nonsensical, different, and above all creative, the talent that the Coen Brothers possess in droves.  It takes a special kind of talent to make films as diverse and different as No Country and Burn, a talent marked by endless creativity.  Burn features talent on and off-camera, all to tell a story about stupid people with no talent. 

When you walk out of the theater, you’ll scratch your head and say “what was that all about?”  The realization that it wasn’t about anything will earn a laugh bigger than any of the numerous belly laughs found throughout the film.

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