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Fatwah / September 15, 2008
By Eileen Jones

What’s so funny?

If you really want to appreciate the highly realistic portrait of America the Coen brothers have been working on for twenty-odd (very odd) years now, I recommend reading the “viewer responses” to Burn After Reading on a popular film info site like Fandango. They’re amazing and appalling, with certain key qualities predominant: nutty monomania, crippling literal-mindedness, weird selective prudery, crazed upbeat energy, sad pomposity. In other words, the Coens aren’t just making this stuff up, don’tcha know?

Burn After Reading did big business on its opening weekend, which is surprising given what a polarizing film it seems to be. Just look at how it strains the Fandango rating system, which is based on Go/Don’t Go recommendations, with highest approval expressed as “MUST GO!” and furious repudiation as “OH NO!” The ratings for Burn After Reading run to both those extremes, so that you get a whiplash effect reading down the page: MUST GO! OH NO! MUST GO! OH NO!

Here’s an OH NO! condemnation of the film from Bautista6738 that ought to earn her a bit part in the next Coen film:

I was embarrassed being in the theater hoping no one I knew would discover I spent my hard-earned money on this when I could have seen Tyler Perry’s movie….Don’t waste YOUR time. It will be out on video faster than a snowball melts in you know where.

This viewpoint is countered by the MUST GO! stylings of ohmygoshjosh:

Crazy!! At first when I saw it I was like wat the heck just happened, cuz I was still catching up, but [when] it was sorted out it was like woa! I walked out of the theater and was like huh, that movie was ridiculous but now I realize its like amazing.

Then iLUVmOvies confuses the issue by seeming to take both sides: “This movie was histerical [sic]….Yet terrible.”

And maranatha08 rounds it out with a general heart’s-cry: “What has Hollywood succumbed to? Any morally discerning person would be wise to avoid this depravity that they call ‘entertainment.’”

This depravity they call “entertainment.”

If you haven’t seen the film yet, Burn After Reading is a dark comedy set in Washington, D.C. about assorted knuckleheads misunderstanding each other and everything else in the world, with fatal consequences. There’s pompous Osborne Cox, a low-level CIA analyst (John Malkovich) who gets demoted for excessive drinking and promptly quits to write his memoirs; his mean-pediatrician wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) who’s planning to leave Cox for federal marshal Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney), an energetic horndog screwing his way around Washington; and the employees at Hardbodies Fitness Center, who accidentally get hold of a computer disc containing Cox’s memoirs and mistakenly believe it contains “sensitive shit” that can be sold for big money. Over the objections of lovelorn Hardbodies manager Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), desperate Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) partners with dimwitted Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) to enact old spy film scenarios in order to finance the four plastic surgeries she’s sure will transform her love life. This sets off a chain reaction of stupidity and paranoia and violent death that eventually comes to the attention of CIA section chiefs played by J.K. Simmons and David Rasch, who spend the rest of the movie trying in vain to figure out what’s going on. At last the great Simmons sums it up blithely: “What did we learn? We learned not to do it again.”

That plays like the punch-line to an extremely long, detailed joke that many Fandango respondents weren’t prepared to sit still for. Miyosh117 composed this bit of plaintive free verse commemorating the experience:

“Worst Movie Ever”

Not a comedy

No funny parts what so ever

No story line

Bad acting

That’s about it…

Other Fandango respondents grappled with the complexities of the plot, and seemed to see daylight. Julz226 figures it this way: “I think maybe the point of the movie was supposed to be that the whole situation (the thing they called a plot) didn’t make any sense and was all blown out of proportion.” But 1928 argues that “Burn After Reading [is] a NEW kind of pointlessness…no information was ever gained about what was actually going on.”

1928 gets the gold star for coming up with the New Pointlessness, a fine name for a movement that could very well catch on. But in fact, a ton of information is served up in the movie, which shows us what’s actually going on in pitiless detail (shot with unnerving realism by Emmanuel Lubezki, newcomer to the Coens’ crew)—everything from bad middle-aged sex to a hatchet murder to, worst of all, a cruelly accurate rendering of an affluent-careerist cocktail party. All motivations and mistaken assumptions are on full display. So what’s the problem in seeing what’s going on here?

What’s going on here?

Sheer denial, always an American favorite. Even with movies, nobody wants to accept the “clusterfuck” we see as, indeed, the real clusterfuck. We keep waiting for a big “reveal” that’ll tell us what’s really gone on behind the scenes and explain everything in ways that look tricky and brilliant, as if masterminds were running the show the whole time. But the Coens are having none of it. The dopes we encounter every day are the real dopes, the creeps are the real creeps, the people in and around power who seem so stupid and venal really are stupid and venal. And all the idiot acts are piling up every day till finally, uh…some bad things happen. We oughta know; we’re living it.


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