' Cinema Romantico: Burn After Reading

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Burn After Reading

The heroes and heroines - or perhaps I should anti-heroes and anti-heroines - of so many noir movies from the 30's and 40's were reasonably intelligent people driven by greed and, if not love, lust. The heroes and heroines - or anti-heroes and anti-heroines - of Joel and Ethan Coen's latest ode to noir, however, seem a few rungs below reasonably intelligent and are not driven by greed and lust so much as they are by insecurity, addiction, cluelessness, general unpleasantness, and plastic surgery.

Things kick off with CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, swearing more than Tom Cruise in "Tropic Thunder") being demoted for, amongst other things, an apparent drinking problem. Instead, he resigns his post and then tells his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) he plans to write his "memoirs". She does not seem amused. In fact, she does not seem amused by much at all. Not even by George Clooney's Harry Pfarrer, a slovenly U.S. Marshal who hauls his gun everywhere, the man with whom she's having an illicit - though not at all passionate ("Maybe I can get a run in") - affair. She is ready to divorce her husband (hence her laywer advises her to get a copy of his finances) and she wants Harry to divorce his wife though he seems a bit evasive when it comes to this topic and maybe that's because he's not only cheating on his wife with Katie but also with the hanging-on-by-a-very-thin-thread Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), an employee at Hardbodies Gym where she spends more time scouring the internet for dates and attempting to concoct scenarios in which she can afford to have her face fixed and her breasts augmented than working. Luckily, her co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt), whose life revolves around exercising, hydrating and grooving to his Ipod, and not necessarily in that order, is handed a disc dropped on the locker room floor that contains Osborne's finance information which Katie had burned for purposes of said impending divorce.

The gym's nerve-wracked manager (Richard Jenkins) wants them to get rid of the disc but Chad and Linda decide to make an attempt at scamming some money off Osborne by using the disc (or, as Chad puts it numerous times, "the sensitive s---") as leverage. Chad's motives are unclear, probably because he has no motives and even if he did he wouldn't understand them, which is why it's a good thing Linda is there to push him along, considering her various prospective surgeries aren't covered by her medical benefits and so she needs some cash and needs it fast. These two, needless to say, are not the most well-tuned oboes in the orchestra.

So we're off and running through the world of a modern-day noir but since it's written and directed by the Brothers Coen that means there will be a gaggle of unusual hoops through which everyone will have to jump. People seem to operate based on what they've seen in old noir movies. ("The Russians? Why did they go to the Russians?") A smattering of red-herrings are thrown at us. One character used to be a Greek-Orthodox priest. Harry works on a mysterious contraption in his basement. People are followed by people in cars who at times seem to be followed by other people in cars. I haven't even mentioned the two guys (J.K. Simmons and David Rasche) back at Langley (in two of the absolute funniest scenes in any movie this year). They talk and talk and talk and seem to be explaining things until you realize they're not really explaining anything and they might even be more confused than you are.

At one point Harry is discussing when he used to work as a private investigator and how in those days it took some real work to find a person. But now, with the internet and cellphones, anyone can find anyone. It doesn't take effort at all. Likewise in the old days to pull off a blackmail scheme you had to be a little sinister, a little jaded, but in an icily cool way. You had to have an attitude that was arresting. It took some flare. You had to have passion, even if it was terribly misplaced. You had to be Lana Turner and John Garfield. And when it went bad, as it had to, it felt like a bonafide tragedy.

But now, a noir can be fueled by any couple of schmucks at the gym.

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