Saturday, October 18, 2008

Burn After Reading: Forget After Viewing?

We are great fans of the Coen brothers and enjoyed Burn After Reading a lot. Hard to say whether it’s a spy thriller or a lifestyle comedy. Let’s settle for social satire.

The film has a stellar cast. The actors walk through their roles with ease, with few surprises.

George Clooney amply fits his public persona - sex addict and loving it.

Joel Coen’s partner, Frances McDormand, has her customary touch of zany obsessiveness. This is her sixth movie with the brothers, including her Oscar winning role in Fargo and the very special Raising Arizona. She holds this film together.

John Malkovich does what he is best at – the nasty, manic, egoistical elitist.

Richard Jenkins does victim so well. He is an even more sensitive and gentle male than his character in The Visitor, and more naïve.

Tilda Swinton and Elizabeth Marvell as the not-so-innocent wives give very convincing performances.

The only exception is Brad Pitt whose comedy role is very funny and unexpectedly so. His almost slapstick performance embellishes his failed-man-of-action character. The film's long title of “Intelligence is Relative” could well be applied to his character's I.Q. He’s certainly no match for the CIA and that’s no mean feat in this movie. George Clooney’s dildo humour doesn’t live up to Brad’s visual gymnastics. I couldn’t decide if it was locker-room stuff or a send-up of it.

The minor characters are Hollywood stereotypes: unethical lawyers and the inevitable intelligence-challenged secret agents.

Unfortunately the plot is not as strong as Brad’s acting. But the film’s mixture of soft satire and increasing violence help to bring about the required suspension of disbelief and engagement with the story. At least until you leave the theatre wondering where the Coen Brothers are heading. It’s very mainstream Hollywood in too many ways. Tarantino meets Ridley Scott, but without many original insights or filmic techniques.

It’s not a deep experience but it pokes fun at modern America in a range of winning ways. The body obsession: makeovers, cosmetic surgery, the gym culture (even Malkovich works out towards the end). Conspicuous wealth and consumption. The jogging and divorce circuits. Online dating is important for these people who are so self-obsessed that they can't connect in person.

Central to the plot is the new media focus – the memoir. Where would Oprah and talk radio be without the true confessions of former spies, diet freaks, reformed addicts, and self-improvers? If you haven’t written a book, you’re nobody.

Like many of the characters, the film is hyper-active. It packs a lot into 96 minutes, with George and Brad spending a lot of the time running.

Haven’t seen Body of Lies yet but the shorts indicate that the title could be swapped with Burn After Reading. My greatest disappointment was that it was so lightweight. It could be a case of Forget After Viewing.


  1. From your description of the film, it reminds me a little bit of the last season of Nip/Tuck--which did a good job of satirying that lifestyle at first but then went downhill.

    I sometimes wonder how much we (Americans) are really like that and how much is just pushed and influenced by the media.

    I find when I start watching certain channels (style, Entertainment, etc) and reading Entertainment/Fashion magazines I begin to feel this is how we are and this is how I SHOULD be.

    But if I avoid these things (which I now strongly do) I feel it's less a part of my culture and life.

    Are Americans all obsessed with celebrity, fashion, exercise, plastic surgery, etc. Or does the media give us the idea that everyone else is obsessed with these things so we should be too?

    Since Australia gets a lot of American television, film, books, you feel these traits are leaking into Australian culture? Do you think Australia can fight against it or do you think eventually it will become as bad as we are?

  2. Absolutely! (Un)reality TV is a bit hit here. We are a leading State on Planet Hollywood. But there are still many distinctly AUSSIE characteristics including weaknesses. It is not yet all about winning, or for many watching others win. But we have a big slice of that market too.

  3. I WISH in America it was about watching other people win. Unfortunately, I think Americans prefer to watch other people lose. I think that's why reality TV is so popular. Celebrity gossip too.