Burn After Reading
Yesterday night I had the pleasure of seeing the Coen Brother’s new film, Burn After Reading. For uninteresting reasons, I haven’t made it out to the movies much lately, and this was a great film to choose for my return. Incidentally, the last film I saw in this particular theater was the Coen brothers’ previous film, No Country for Old Men. So much has changed since then, and I don’t mean the Coen brothers winning an Oscar. If I were asked to explain it in general terms, I would say that there is energy in the air that is caused by a depressed country, an overwrought media, and a hunger to uncover what is at the heart of this uncertain puddle we are standing in. Things have been dark and bloody for sometime, and now they seem to be about to tip into the realm of the absurd. Sarah Palin could be a breath away from leading out country. Need I say more? I bring it up because in a very special Coen brothers way, Burn After Reading is a reflection of this current mood.
The film operates much like a centrifuge: characters spin wildly around an empty center. Linda Litsky, played by Frances McDormand, is obsessed by “her surgeries”, a set of cosmetic procedures that will finally allow her to reinvent herself. Brad Pitt plays Chad Feldheimer, a bumbling, over-happy bimbo who does nothing by exercise and hydrate. George Clooney is a paranoid sex addict, Osborne Cox, played by John Malkovich, is a drunk, angry, ex-CIA hack. Tilda Swinton is, to put it in the screenwriter’s terms, “a cold stuck up bitch.” Yet, somehow we like them, or at least like watching them. The utter stupidity and shamelessness of the film’s protagonists, Linda and Chad, is disguised as vulnerability and naivety. This is precisely why we like them. All of us vulnerable, naïve members of the audience only wish we could be so shameless about our own stupidity. We could continue to run around like chickens with our heads cut off and never have to realize it is our own damn fault.
It is pretty cute that the only dollar amount ever mentioned is the $40,000 that are missing from Osborne Cox’s checking account, thanks to his disgruntled wife. The cost of the cosmetic surgeries that motivate Linda to launch the ridiculous chain of unfortunate events that constitute the movie’s plot is never mentioned. Money is at the bottom of all the insanity, but amidst the attempted extortions and black mail no one ever mentions how much. (Compare this to No Country for Old Men, where the suitcase full of $2,,XXX,XXX,XXX was pretty much responsible to everything).
Chad and Linda desperately want to be part of something: the larger system of intelligence, international politics, adventure, whatever. The Coen brothers never doubt that the establishment exists, nor do they infer that it should be overthrown. Instead they reveal the vacuum of emptiness at its center. True, there is a system that encases this emptiness. Yes, someone is always watching. Yes, information is being recorded and reported. Yes, people everywhere are doing the jobs they were hired to do. But for what? No duh, for naught.
Against all expectations, the fact that there is not good reason for anything that is happening comes as a consistent relief. When the screen cuts to black, the emotion I feel is appreciation. I appreciate how much the film has made me laugh. I appreciate that the Coen brothers have a consistent yet evolving point of view. I appreciate that people in America are still making good movies, despite (or, maybe because of?) all those Palin supporters.