Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Burn After Reading

"Joel, you wanna know something? Every now and then say, 'What the fuck.' 'What the fuck' gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future."

Miles from "Risky Business" (1983) written by Paul Brickman

Then there's the corollary to those hopeful words, the Coen Brothers' new film "Burn After Reading." It's a comedy, so that means folks who swoon when they're making serious films, like "Miller's Crossing," or "No Country for Old Men" will look at it like it's a red-headed step-child, along the lines of "Raising Arizona," "The Big Lebowski," or "Intolerable Cruelty." Thing is, they're all products of the same sensibility; the perverse sense of the world that informed "Blood Simple," and "Barton Fink," "Fargo," and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" informs "Burn After Reading," especially in this time of national dependence on the Intelligence Community.

But back to "WTF." A lot of people say "What the Fuck?" in "Burn After Reading." In fact, I'd have to see it again (not an unpleasant thought), but I got the impression that every single major character in the story says it at least once. And not in the good way of the opening quote that supposedly produces opportunity (though it might for those wearying "Up With People" souls who see every problem as an opportunity, and every half-empty glass as half-full).

No, it's usually uttered in shocked disbelief at the events that transpire. It's because "Burn After Reading" belongs to that sub-category of comedy (and tragedy) "The Incredible Mess." It's where the hopes and dreams of a dedicated few turn into a nightmare that no matter how hard they try, their efforts to extricate themselves only make matters worse. Fighting it is a losing strategy. "Yeah, sure, it looks like quick-sand; what's your hurry?"

CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) has been fired from his job and he's pissed enough to write a tell-all book blowing the doors open on the Agency. One thing he won't put into the book-as he's ignorant of the fact--is that his wife, Dr. Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with friend Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney)--he's in the P.P. business (personal protection), and he's also cruising the Internet as one of Washington D.C.'s serial daters. So does Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who works at the nearby "Hardbodies" fitness center and who is now turning to plastic surgery because she's taken her body "as far as it will go." She doesn't have the money for it, but hope comes along in the form of a disk of Cox's financial information that falls into the hands of fellow "Hardbodies" employee Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), who thinks he might be getting some sort of federal reward for turning it in, and hey, wouldn't that help pay for those operations?

The fuse gets lit, as loyalties shift, panic arises, priorities change and worst instincts lead to "worser" consequences. That reward turns to a sense of entitlement and then resentment, then to ransom. The events are somewhat monitored in disbelief by the CIA (in the form of the incomparable David Rasche and J.K. Simmons), as things spin out of control.

Everybody's great, besides Rasche and Simmons.

Clooney seems to excel with the Coen's--this is his third film with them, McDormand amps up the energy of her previous Coen-work, Swinton seems less self-contained and goes for the comedy like never before, and Malkovich swings between coiled fury and exploding fury. But the stand-out is Brad Pitt's selfless performance as Chad, the personal trainer who could very well be the stupidest person on face of the earth.* His hair piled high and high-lighted, an i-pod constantly filling the empty space in his head, his body moving spasmodically with its energy, he can be counted on to think he's doing the right thing, when he couldn't be more wrong--he is everyman, trapped in a life that resembles a first home improvement project--quite oblivious to the fact that sometimes you only get one chance to get things right without the benefit of "rep's." There's a sub-text running obviously through the thing of "the self," with the main players obsessed with their bodies and their own interests. Washington D.C. makes the perfect back-drop for it.

"Burn After Reading
" is rated "R" for pervasive...you know.

"Burn After Reading" is a matinee, I mean, what the fuck?**

* After Bill Pullman's character, Earl Mott, in "Ruthless People"(1986)

** Sorry about the "pervasive language," but, really--you see this movie, and you know that was the working title of this movie (a move that, if it was carried through, would have crippled the movie at the box-office by restricting advertising and such). I briefly considered not spelling out "the f-bomb" with the comic-standard "f@<#," but I figured...no, I'm not saying it again...but as the word appeared Sunday in the "When Harry Met Sally" Scene, I figured "if I use it there, I might as well use it here," pervasively.

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