Monday, September 22, 2008

Burn After Reading

So I saw Burn After Reading. There are some movies that are very sweet and wholesome, yet not saccharine or sentimental, and that engage audiences across all demographics, young and old, rich and poor, those on the mainstream and those on the fringes.

This is not one of those movies.

There is something insanely wonderful about a movie that, taken as the sum of its parts, makes perfect sense, but, taken as a whole, is largely meaningless and pointless, and yet somehow ends up being deliciously wicked and fun.

When I say "insanely wonderful," I mean that in both senses of the word "insane" - insane in the sense of being beyond normal expectations, and insane meaning lacking rationality or logic. The Coen brothers have made a ruthlessly whimsical movie, with smart, beautiful stars playing people who are stupid, or clueless, or both, and alternately charming and nasty.

John Malkovich plays a CIA agent, Osborne Cox, who has been "reassigned" to the State Department, against his wishes. He's not happy about this. You have the feeling he's not happy about much. He's married to Katie Cox, played by Tilda Swinton, who owes the cinematographer and costume designer some big favors for a couple of shots where she is simply stunning. She's gorgeous, the shots are gorgeous, and you have the feeling that the Coen brothers said to themselves "You know what? We're going to make this gorgeous just because we can." Most fortunately, they take that attitude with gleeful abandon at random points throughout the movie. Even when they're not having ridiculous amounts of fun with lighting and camera angles and production design, they're still having fun. This is an exceptionally well-directed movie.

Kaite Cox is not happy about the fact that she's married to Osborne, so she's having an affair with Harry Pfarrer, played by George Clooney, who of course needs no help looking gorgeous. He's married, too, and not terribly happy about that, either, although he's not super-thrilled with this affair, either. Which is one reason he has several others.

Including one with Linda Litzki (Frances McDormand), a trainer at a local gym. She's not happy with her body, and desperately needs cosmetic surgery, although her HMO won't pay for it, which she's not happy about, either. She's also not happy with her romantic prospects, despite the fact that her boss, Ted (Richard Jenkins) all but lays roses at her feet to try to get her attention. Naturally, he's not that excited about the fact that he's invisible to her.

One of Linda's coworkers is Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). He's actually not that unhappy. He's pretty much grooving through life, not thinking too much about much of anything, except how much fun he's having on the treadmill (oh the metaphors) until someone finds a CD with lots of weird data on it in the gym locker room. He and Linda decide to have a little fun with it. This is what some people, usually law enforcement officials, refer to as "blackmail." Don't try this at home.

All this unhappiness and lack of good sex makes for some volatile people and even more volatile situations. Individually, everyone is mostly normal, or at least not that abnormal. The things they do are not that weird. Lots of people have affairs, particularly in movies. Lots of people try online dating. Washed-up alcoholics get fired from the CIA all the time.

Not that many people, however, try blackmail when they have no idea what they are doing, or who they are trying to blackmail, or even what they are trying to blackmail with. Linda and Chad (I love the name "Chad Feldheimer") decide to engage in a little extemporaneous fundraising for Linda's cosmetic surgery needs when they find Mr. Cox's CD. Things don't go as planned.

At this point I have to stop describing the plot, because we are now entering who-cares-what-makes-sense territory. I don't think I have ever been so happy that I did not care one iota that the plot was basically pointless. The performances are just so good, the directing is so good, that I just enjoyed the experience. The actors are clearly having the times of their lives. I think John Malkovich has been waiting his entire career for this combination of self-destructiveness, articulate rage, wildly misdirected competence, and impotent ennui. Frances McDormand throws off an endless stream of cliches, deluding herself that she's smart with all these great insights wrapped up in succinct, trite little packages.

J.K. Simmons has a cameo as some kind of boss at the CIA, who is trying to follow this without the benefit of great cinematography or editing. People he's never heard of are doing strange things for reasons he can't begin to understand. He finally tells his underling, the one feeding him the details, "Report back to me when it all makes sense."

It never does. It never will. At least not to someone outside all the nonsense. To someone on the inside, however, watching this madcap explosion of absurdity turning semi-normal people's lives inside out, it makes perfect sense.

Not that you want it to. That might ruin the fun.

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