I really believe that the Coen brothers have to make movies to stay alive. They hatched a deal with the devil sometime around 1979. They have created some of the best film characters of all time whose quirky qualities gain traction with viewers and endear audiences. They can also do exactly the opposite.
The Plot In 13 Words
Woman’s quest for cosmetic surgery creates nasty web of deception, divorce, and death.
My Humble Opinon
Burn After Reading is not a bad film, and I would say it’s worth watching. There are parts that are truly hilarious, particularly the conversations between the brass at CIA Headquarters. It’s also great to see John Malkovitch scream at people. But if I have any critique of the Brothers Coen (particularly in this movie) it’s the coldness with which they create and dispatch their characters. Film 101 teaches you that if people don’t care about characters, they don’t care about movies.
In The Big Lebowski there is something loveable about the camaraderie of Donnie, Walter and the dude—there’s humor in the misplaced maleness of it all, in the loveable panache that only real losers can offer. It’s because of this that we give a shit when Donnie dies and we root for The Dude and Walter throughout the movie. The same can be said about Raising Arizona. It’s the opposite in Burn After Reading. When Brad Pitt takes a 38 short slug in the forehead it’s shocking but ultimately just doesn’t matter. Frances McDormand over-plays the doof she’s been assigned, furthering the fakeness of it all. This is very much another movie about losers. But these are losers we just don’t give a damn about.
It’s not hard to get what they are doing, and it’s not a coincidence that the movie is set in DC, a place where we’ve seen the single-mindedness of self-serving government officials get us in a massive global mess. Every character in the story represents one aspect of this singularity—vanity, power, sex, greed, dishonesty, vengeance, stupidity. It’s all there. The unfortunate problem is that it’s not being channeled through real people, but facsimiles of humans, blind to all of their failings. The violence of Burn After Reading comes fast and without resolve, not unlike abruptly finding upon Llewelyn Moss dead in an El Paso Hotel room in No Country. But again, it just doesn’t stick.
The Straight Dopes
It’s worth watching, but don’t go into it expecting too much.