Yesterday I ordered a pizza over the internet. It’s not super important, but I just wanted you to know that. Technology, man. Wowsers!
Burn After Reading is hard to describe. Even the actors think so, if you watch the DVD extras. It’s a spy thriller dark comedy about middle-aged people having sex in Washington DC. No, seriously. It doesn’t sound appealing, but trust me, it’s awesome. I heard great things about the film by word of mouth, not to mention the Coen brothers sat in the director’s chair(s). I found it on DVD for $5 at TJ Maxx one day and I knew I couldn’t pass it up. I sat down last summer and watched it once, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. Not in the twisted The Human Centipede-kind of way, but still in disbelief. Today, I decided to revisit the film, trying to get a second look.
The film is about a former government analyst (John Malkovich) who intends to write a book, a memoir on his life. His marriage is strained and his wife (Tilda Swinton) takes steps to divorce him, hoping to continue her extramarital affair with a US Marshall and treasurer (George Clooney). She snoops through her husband’s computers and copies several files onto a CD.
The CD is lost at the gym, dropped by a careless employee at the firm. It’s picked up by a janitor and several of the gym employees (among them Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) mistake the draft of the analyst’s memoir and his finances to be top secret government files. What soon follows is a hilarious and twisted tale of deceit, lies, and blackmail. I don’t want to give too much away because I highly encourage one to watch it for themselves (and the characters weave in with each other that makes summarizing it a pain in the ass).
I said before that I was in disbelief when I first saw it, but I assure you it’s not the “Dude, that’ just gross,” kind of way. The movie manages to surprise you if you expect to see a comedy or a spy thriller; it manages to do both yet cleverly avoids general conventions of the genres. I never thought something like it could be done, but it was.
For starters, the film is about self-centered and possibly retarded people living in Washington DC, but in no way does it touch on political issues. It sticks to the universe of the characters and their relationships, not once going above and beyond what was necessary. Kudos to the film for not being cliche and be a political commentary or satire.
The film is in part a dark comedy, using what would otherwise be traumatic and incredibly dramatic situations and making light of them. I would shit my pants if I would meet in secret with a government analyst demanding his files back, but the film takes that scenario and makes it so much fun to watch. Perhaps it’s the writing, but I will give credit to the performances of the actors for making the comedy work. It takes great skill to make morbid and depressing situations funny, but these cats manage to do it and do so without feeling forced. Of course these are A-list actors and audiences should expect nothing less. But credit must still be given.
The one character that stands out the most is Brad Pitt’s character, Chad, the personal trainer at the gym that mistakes the files on the CD to be important secrets. Pitt’s character is the show stopper, portraying a bumbling, simpleton who dances his way through hallways and treadmills. And, oh, God, the dancing. Maybe it’s because it’s Brad Pitt, you know, freaking Benjamin Button, and if it was anyone else the comedy probably wouldn’t have worked. But in any case, Pitt’s charisma leaps out of the screen and he is unafraid of being just a bit over-the-top. If there’s one character you will remember by the end of the movie, it’s him.
There’s an extra on the DVD I haven’t seen yet and it’s dedicated to George Clooney, titled “Welcome Back, George.” This is certainly one hell of a film for Clooneyl he’s a charming womanizer named Harry, who also manages to swoon the audience; he’s a two-timing (well, throughout the course of the movie, about four-timing), arrogant schmuck that you would hate to be associated with, yet somehow is entertaining to watch. It could be case of schadenfreude, however, as he is always being spied on and his paranoia over it increases exponentially as the story unfolds. To see this jackass squirm in his pants justifies the pleasure one can have watching him, despite how unlikeable he actually should be. Next to Chad, Harry is one of the most entertaining characters in the movie.
John Malkovich’s character, Osbourne Cox, is the tragedy in this comedic tale. Originally a government analyst, he quits when his tolerance over the bureaucracy of his job is past its threshold. He hopes to write a memoir (the way Malkovich pronounces it may elicit laughter for a few), but is soon lost in a tangled web of stupid people. His last speech in the movie very well highlights his situation — he’s the only character in the entire movie that actually knows what’s going on, but has no power to be in control. He slowly spirals into a depression, and by the end is a shell of his former, proud self. Malkovich puts on another great performance, but that’s expected when you have a movie about people wanting to be you. I mean, it’s a given. Also, I’m pretty sure that “fuck” is the only curse word John Malkovich knows. You’ll know it when you watch.
Frances McDormand plays a very unlikeable middle-aged gym employee preoccupied with others’ perceptions of her. She’s constantly looking for a man in her life, and her ending is slightly tragic, though deserving considering just how self-absorbed she is. I personally didn’t like it when she was on screen, but that’s actually a compliment: the character is very selfish, and I only felt pity for her and refused to empathize. She had something good and decent, something she wanted, in front of her the whole time but refused to acknowledge it. Maybe my own life story led me to be bitter towards people like that, but when I saw her on screen, I just wanted off.
The entire cast should be commended for their performances; they played to their characters well and were entertaining all throughout. JK Simmons makes a cameo in scenes that act as “breaks” that allows the audience to digest the situation, because frankly it can get tiresome trying to keep track of who is who and who wants what. These “break” scenes are handled very well and are hilarious in their own right, if only to poke fun at the stupidity of the people in the film.
Notice how I talked only about the characters so far. In my opinion, they carry the movie so well that nothing else really seemed to matter. The cinematography was pretty standard at best, shots of Washington DC were nice but they didn’t really capture the city, not to mention some scenes were shot in New York City. But keep in mind, this isn’t a government action thriller that needed sprawling and epic landscapes; the characters and their stupidity are the driving force of this movie, and no amount of cinematography could make their performances any better. The characters are at the center here, and the basic camera work won’t distract the audience in any way, and that’s a good thing.
The soundtrack is worth nothing only at the beginning and at the end: a fast-paced, tribal-style drum beat evokes emotions of human savagery, a jungle full of animals only looking out for themselves to survive. No one truly loves anyone in this film, just crushes, close friends, and casual sex. No love whatsoever.
The movie is also in part a spy-thriller, but spoofs it in ways I never thought possible. Everyone is snooping on each other, getting into each others’ business. Harry’s paranoia explodes towards the end, and Osbourne snaps in his final scene. It’s the consequences of people snooping; when we get ourselves involved where we have no place, bad things happen. Thankfully, this doesn’t serve as commentary at all for government snoops and invasions of privacy! Because that totally is ridiculous and doesn’t happen! Right?