The very first sound we hear in the Coen Brothers’ latest movie Burn After Reading is a distressed ship’s alarm lifted from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. So, I had that “here we go again” feeling even before the main titles.
The Coens have been obsessed with Kubrick’s work and have littered their films with references to his oeuvre, large and small. Fans of their work have even made a game of looking for references to “Purity of Essence” from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in each new film. I didn’t spot one here, but Brad Pitt’s constant efforts to re-hydrate himself make me confident it is floating around somewhere. Comparing Burn After Reading to Dr. Strangelove is actually a revealing way to gauge its successes and failures.
Dr. Strangelove makes over-the-top performances the rule as does Burn After Reading. But while Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott used the approach to create bigger than life cartoons, George Clooney and Brad Pitt clank away a few notes lower on the keyboard. Clooney is playing a parody of his playboy persona but rarely transcends simple parody, although the scene where he reveals his new sexual invention is hilarious.
Brad Pitt flails for a comic tone, any comic tone. His mannered line deliveries sound too much like a very smart actor trying to sound very moronic. His big swooping body gestures always land just south of their intended funny destinations. At one point, he is shown exaggeratedly tossing a medicine ball for an eternity, as if duration breeds hilarity. When Pitt is funny – and he is funny at times – it is due to the small details like how he squints his eyes.
Dr. Strangelove is meticulously structured as is Burn After Reading. This is the former’s chief strength as it scene-by-scene develops its terrifying internal logic. What’s at stake in the latter film though is far less urgent than nuclear destruction – unless the need for tummy tucks has jumped in the polls lately – and the scenes develop, if anything, confusion rather than logic. Maybe that was intended.
The funniest line in the movie is uttered by a CIA superior (J.K Simmons): "Just keep an eye on them until… I don't know, until it starts making sense." The audience roars because the line relates so closely to its own quandary. They think, “It’s okay. I’m supposed to be lost, just like the CIA.”
Still, weighing everything, I have to admit it all worked in some crazy sort of way. There were laughs, big laughs; the kind of laughs with aftershocks. The second funniest line – also spoken by the priceless J.K. Simmons (he was the dad in Juno) – brings new meaning to the “Burn” of the title. And the film added plenty of memorable new pictures to my mind’s gallery, the final images of Brad Pitt being my favorites.
Burn After Reading also achieves its own thematic clarity. It is ultimately about people struggling to change and re-define themselves and how the world conspires to make change difficult if not impossible. Paradoxically, people content in their ways are forced to change, or else. There is something both funny and sad about Clooney’s final scene with his prized invention.
More than anything though, I enjoyed Burn After Reading for how it reminded me of the Coens' debut Blood Simple. Both are filled with characters that barely have all their marbles secured in a bag. One glimpse of blood and they go positively simple.