18 October 2008 | Monotreme02
Not what I expected: dark, over-the-top, hilarious but surprisingly poignant
The Coen Brothers are an interesting pair, there's no doubt about that. Just as they did back in the 1980's with their debut and sophomore films, the Coens chose to follow up their most heavy-handed and serious film since Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men, with a nutty, over-the-top screwball black comedy. But unlike their second film, Raising Arizona, the Coens deliver Burn After Reading with a kind of newfound cynicism attached to it; it's funny, but it's also surprisingly dark and sad, and even poignant to some extent.
Based on the Coen's first wholly original screenplay since 2001's The Man Who Wasn't There, Burn After Reading features a plethora of classic Coen staples: repetitive (and brilliant) dialogue employing a strange and almost poetic use of curse words, a multifaceted plot featuring slightly dim-witted characters in way over their heads, blacker-than-the-night comedy, over-the-top performances from a pool of actors featuring recurring collaborators and newcomers to the Coen clan alike, and to tie it all off, a lesson-learning conclusion in which nothing ends up being learned at all. It's wonderful how the Coens complicate the plot so much only to round it all off perfectly in the end. Like all of their films, Burn After Reading is a carefully calculated dance in which every pause, every stutter and every camera move is planned in advance.
What I loved most about the movie is trying to get into the Coen's heads and see what they think is funny. What's for sure is that the brothers have the most unique sense of humour in Hollywood; superficially, it seems as if most of the film's comedy derives from over-the-top slapstick/screwball antics and bleak, black comedic situations and visual gags, but in reality Burn After Reading's comedy is a lot subtler than that. As I already mentioned, this is a film in which every twitch and stutter is calculated; fittingly, this is the real source of the film's hilarity, in the actors' facial expressions, subtleties, and delivery of the lines. It's great to think, for instance, that the Coens probably thought that applying a booming, ominous drum-dominated "epic"-type musical score to the movie in the style of a Tony Scott action-thriller would be absolutely hilarious, and that's just one example of the many jokes in the movie that just soar right over your head. In addition, I think that the Coen Brothers are probably the most talented employers of curse words in Hollywood. Many directors are familiar with the colourful phrases, some more than others, but only the Coens know how to make various S- and F- words utterly sidesplitting.
Blessed with one of the more impressive ensemble casts of any film this year, Burn After Reading inevitably features a plethora of good acting. Surprisingly good acting, actually, proving I suppose that the Coen's didn't really mean for this to be a total farce but do reach out for a little something more. Frances McDormand, George Clooney and John Malkovich all deliver fantastically colourful, over-the-top performances, but each of their characters also has an added level of sadness and poignancy to them that adds a little something more than physical comedy to the actors' performances: McDormand with her almost tragic loneliness and obsession with cosmetic surgery, along with her equally tragic ignorance of those around her that do appreciate her for what she is; Clooney with an equal amount of loneliness and desperation, and an undeniable air of incompetence abound him, suggesting that his mediocre job is probably the best he can get; and Malkovich, with his alcoholism and acute superiority complex. Tilda Swinton and the ever-great Richard Jenkins are a lot subtler than their higher-billed co-stars, and Brad Pitt delivers the only truly one-hundred percent cartoon performance in the film; thought despite its emptiness it's also the most enjoyable and completely hilarious.
J.K. Simmons I reserve for last; he only appears in two scenes in the film, but they are undoubtedly and by far the funniest and most successful scenes of the film. Props to him for admirably succeeding in carrying the Coen's hilarity to another level of deadpan comedy.
The Coen Brothers have an interesting sense of humour, and it is present up front and center in their latest film. Just the concept of following up a serious drama-thriller like No Country for Old Men with an over-the-top screwball black comedy probably seemed hilarious to them. Featuring great, uproarious performances from a stellar ensemble cast, the Coens really give it their all with their offbeat, so-subtle-half-the-jokes-soar-over-your-head comedy. And yet, the film occasionally does manage to reach out a little further from its apparent genre limitations and provides us with something more poignant and truthfully sad. It's even somewhat startling just how dark the movie gets and how cruel the Coens are to their characters. It wasn't quite what I expected, but then again, that's the Coen Brothers for you.