The Coen brothers have made fickle fans out of all of us. I wouldn’t say that I am a “fan,” but I have a strong appreciation for their work, especially “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski.”
Everyone loves the Dude, Walter, Donnie and the whole gang, and this is why “The Big Lebowski” works. It’s all in the characters.
It is essential to what makes or breaks a Coen brothers movie. Among the rogues’ gallery of Coen creations, there are a dozen or so characters that prove this theory, whether they are a barren policewoman-turned-babynapper, or a slick divorce lawyer-cum-lovestruck fool.
In “Burn After Reading,” the characters stop with John Malkovich. Malkovich, who plays ex-CIA analyst Osbourne Cox, is vicious, constantly flustered and the only shining light within the film.
He is an alcoholic searching for a disk full of company secrets, while battling his ice queen wife, played by Tilda Swinton. Aside from the brilliancy Malkovich consistently brings to every role he plays, the movie plays like amateur night.
I know you’ve seen the previews and TV spots for this movie. The cheery glimpses of Frances McDormand with some mean helmet hair and Brad Pitt snapping his fingers to the electric bliss underneath those little earbuds of his look appealing.
These idiosyncratic behaviors might be tolerable, maybe even funny, but they’re not. And although there are a few chuckles throughout, at no point does the film’s comedic aura rise above shallow quirkiness.
The film has been described as a black comedy, but following last year’s bloodbath, “No Country for Old Men,” anything could be called a comedy. “Burn After Reading” is more along the lines of a spy-farce.
This is what the brothers Coen are shooting for. They have intentionally made a movie that plays against the conventions of the spy thriller. Take the protagonist, the enemies, the torture sequence, take every element people expect from the spy genre and give it the bizarro treatment.
With a film like this, it seems as though the Coens have become almost like merry pranksters in their own brand of existential cinema. “Burn After Reading” is more about inflicting their sadistic power over the viewer than it is about entertainment or showcasing an eye for the aesthetic. It’s a perfect example of “gotcha” filmmaking.
As audience members, we don’t like being tricked. We walk into a theater with our popcorn and soda and we want to see our expectations met.
We want to see the good guy win, the bad guy lose and for everyone to ride off into the sunset. Here, the innocent get punished, the wicked get rewarded and in many cases, the wicked get rewarded because they have punished the innocent.
Although they hate it when they are tricked, the audience hates it even more when they find out they have been duped into paying $10 for 96 minutes worth of nothingness.
In a sense, nothing happens in the movie. Nothing.
A complex web of deceit and double-crossing, eventually revealed to be completely disposable. I felt like I was watching “Ocean’s Twelve” all over again. At least that movie had Don Cheadle.