03 October, 2008

Movie Review: Burn After Reading (2008)

The new Coen Brothers film, Burn After Reading, is a hilarious crime caper that skewers intelligence and surveillance with nonstop ridicule.

An omnipresent surveillance satelite zooms in on Osbourne Cox (a very bald, very pasty John Malkovich), who is an operative in the pristine, labyrinthine corridors of the Central Intelligence Agency until he loses his job because of a "drinking problem" he vehemently denies. He spends the film pouring himself hard drinks--on one occasion holding back by pouring only three-quarters of a jigger into the glass because it's time to get serious--and stoking the smoldering flames of his own dim merits. We know he went to Yale, we know he once had virtues of some sort that were never quite fulfilled, and we know he's done something of a diplomatic sort in Belgrade, but the details of his former job are left unmentioned--not shadowy and elusive as he might like to imagine, just too unimportant to bother examining.

With his position in the world thrown into a tailspin, he decides to start penning his memoir (which he pronounces with all the French nasalization and silent letters), something his nurse wife, a "cold, stuck-up bitch" played by Tilda Swinton, dismisses as unnecessary. Osbourne Cox is a low-level nobody dismissed merely because of a drinking problem; who'd really care about his life? All the same, he lies erect in a divan, clothed in a bathing robe, and mutters vague statements drowning in ellipses into a handheld memo recorder, which he then transcribes to his computer in an encoded file--because he is, after all, a spy. And his life work is, of course, too important to not be veiled in mystery, too sensitive to be seen by just anyone's eyes.

His wife Katie, of course, is pissed at his loss of employment; it is the straw that breaks their marriage's back. She's been having a strictly sexual relationship with a gun-toting marshall for the US Treasury, Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney). He's never fired his gun in twenty years though he claims the instinct to kill will be their in his muscle memory as soon as it's needed, and so the pent-up energy releases itself through jittery facial spasms, fast-talking, enormous sex libido, and marathon exercise sessions. His relationship with Katie is meaningless to him--just another means of curbing his insatiable appetite--but she sees the recent turn of events in her husband's life as an opportunity for them to get serious, and on the advice of her divorce lawyer, she raids Osbourne's computer for his financial information, which she saves to a disc, changes the locks to their Georgetown apartment, and leaves Osbourne further in the lurch.

Behind the scenes, the precious disc travels in the lawyer's secretary's gym bag, where it's accidentally discarded in the locker room before passing from gym janitor Manolo's hands to the hands of wannabe spy/personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (a goofy, one-note Brad Pitt), who with a flair for DC political thrills interprets the coded memoir and the tax charts as highly classified, crucial information. Goaded by co-worker Linda Litzke (a convincingly narrowminded Frances McDormand, in a notable performance), they track down Osbourne (who they convince themselves must be important, though they've never heard of him) and extort him for thousands of dollars. Linda needs money for four surgeries recommended by her bluntly jabbing plastic surgeon (Jeffrey DeMunn, who's always nice to see). They're completely unnecessary--for a middle-aged woman, she's in great shape and quite beautiful; the only cutting she needs is her bangs--but she insists upon them despite lacking the funds. She's gotten as far as she can in her current body, she insists, and she's not having much luck in the Internet romance department either, though she overlooks the quiet affections of her boss Ted (a quiet, troubled, somewhat panicky Richard Jenkins).

The plan to blackmail Osbourne is absurd. He certainly doesn't need the disc copy, nor is the rough draft of an exceedingly sensitive quality, but the threats bite his offensive ego and, fueled by an overinflated sense of importance, he fights back with excessive force, at one point punching Chad in the face. Desperate for money and now convinced that the disc must really be as important as they assumed, they play into the political thriller expectations and chase Osbourne in his car, rearending it before zipping off.

They take the action to the next most plausible stage, where any high-treason espionage suspense story would escalate to: the Russian embassy, where a cultural attache hesitatingly accepts the disc to see if it's of any value to the Russian cause.

Eventually stakes raise, relationships become entangled, and people get killed. Operating always behind the scenes, the CIA (run by J.K. Simmons playing the hardnosed asshole he always plays) keeps tabs as the events untangle. When Osbourne's house is broken into by Chad, who is spontaneously gunned-down by Harry (remember that muscle memory!), the CIA is the first to know. When Harry flees to Venezuela, the CIA is able to intercept his plane and then allow him to continue on his escape. When Linda confronts the Russian ambassador, the CIA knows the details of her proposal. When Osbourne is shot down by secret operatives while hacking Ted to death with an ax on a Georgetown sidewalk (yes, the plot gets this thick), the CIA keeps vital tabs on all the bodies.

The CIA, the most powerful fact-finding and surveillance organization in the world, has the details on everything, everything, as it happens. They're always one step ahead, following and orchestrating events from the shadows.

The whys, however, they fail to grasp. Who the hell is Chad? What does Harry have to do with Katie? Why the hell would Linda go to the Russian embassy, of all places? The complexities of human behavior, the nonsense that motivates us, binds us together, and rips us apart, the physical non sequiturs that we enact everyday in our lives: none of it has any place in the cold calculations of the CIA files, the type-written, redacted memos and black-and-white, long-distance photography. When Linda, one of the few survivors of the screwup, agrees to oblige to a cover-up in exchange for full payment of her unnecessary cosmetic surgeries, the CIA agents can't figure her out (why would she need lipo? why does she think she needs a facelift? it's unnecessary and absurd!), but they sign off on it anyway.

All the people she's closest to lose their lives, but Linda happily succeeds in improving her body through the miracles of modern science. Absurdism triumphs.

The Coens' new film is a triumph, one of the funniest films I've seen in a while.

Burn After Reading (2008)
d/w: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
(Frances McDormand, George Clooney, John Malkovich)

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