Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Burn After Reading details the mid-life crises of a handful of DC residents who flail so obnoxiously that the CIA puts them under surveillance and cleans up the aftermath. The actors are clearly having a gas playing their ids (and their age), and it's great to see a Coen Brothers movie where the oddity emanates from the main characters rather than a cartoon environment. (Aside from a minor visual lift or two - most blatantly the hatchet attack from Fargo, the film doesn't trade in on auteurist familiarity.)
For all these pleasures, it's the ending that's most striking. Rather than show a couple dancing happily on a faraway island, or establish an air of collective misery, we arbitrarily cut to a CIA agent reporting the character statuses to his superior, who decides nobody knows what these people were doing - let alone why they were doing it - and that the CIA no longer gives a crap. With the story's lack of importance confirmed, the camera says "fuck it" and floats back up to space the same way it came during the opening credits. It's a giddy nihilism worthy of '60s Kubrick, with JK Simmons as the obelisk.
That this frequently puerile display of aging rubes striving for greatness is so much more cutting than the inflated pulp of No Country For Old Men makes me want to check out The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty just to see if this is really the first great Coen comedy of its kind. The brothers supposedly wrote the script for Burn at the same time as No Country, and its encouraging that they were driven towards this farce while completing the dour retread/earnest adaptation the middlebrow had been dying for. By treating desperate quests for grandeur and meaning so irreverently (it's noteworthy that everyone seems to be childless), the Coens keep from indulging their own.