I’ve always been sort of an admirer of the Coen Brothers. Not a full-fledged fan, as I’ve only seen a handful of their movies, but I’ve had a healthy respect for their technique and ability to forge a unique style of their own.
Out with the old, and in with the new, I say. After seeing Burn After Reading, I’m a big fan. In fact, they’re now firmly in my top five filmmakers (among Martin Scorsese, Kevin Smith, PT Anderson, and Wes Anderson). The thing that struck me with Burn After Reading is that, while it’s not as ambitious or mood-driven as No Country for Old Men, it’s effectively everyone involved playing to their strengths. Word on the street is that each role was written with a specific actor in mind (all of whom played that character in the final product), and it definitely shows.
The film is about adultery, blackmail, depression, and online dating. And probably the funniest movie about those subjects I’ve seen. Brad Pitt’s performance as dull-witted personal trainer Chad is probably the standout, with a ridiculous hairdo and severely limited vocabulary, but there’s really no weak link in the cast. George Clooney playing a womanizer isn’t much of a stretch, but when the stakes start rising (and rise they do), he’s more than up to the task. Same for John Malkovich, always on the edge of going medieval on the nearest object. JK Simmons, however, comes closest to stealing the show as a deadpan CIA higher-up forced to make sense of the madness that ensues from some stolen memoirs and an internet hook-up.
But cast, direction, and editing aside, what really makes this movie work is the music. No Country for Old Men had no score to speak of (granted, it was able to rely on Javier Bardem to set the mood), but Burn After Reading is made all the more enjoyable by the animated score by Carter Burwell, a frequent Coens collaborator. It’s not a subtle score, but it’s the perfect match for the slapstick violence and larger than life tone of the movie.
It’s ridiculously funny, and incredibly well executed. But what’s really impressive is knowing that had the Coens decided to make it a tense, mood-driven drama, it would have been just as good. Burn After Reading is absolutely night and day compared to No Country for Old Men, but they’re both fantastic movies. While some have called Burn After Reading a spiritual sequel to The Big Lebowski, I’d compare it to an earlier work: Raising Arizona. Simpletons getting in way over their heads + consequences they didn’t expect = comedy. A basic premise, to be sure, but for whatever reason, the Coens seem to do it better than everyone else. The Coens aren’t infallaible to be sure. They’ve had their share of flops. But when they get it right, they really nail it. And they wind up making some of my favourite movies when they do.