Monday, January 26, 2009
Burn After Reading -- changing our person
Directors: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, 2008.
In 2007, the Coen brothers hit the apex, the pinnacle of success, with their crime drama, No Country for Old Men. That movie won Oscars in four of the eight categories it was nominated for, including best actor (Jarvier Bardem), best director and best picture. This is their follow-on. Where No Country was a cold dark drama, set in the bleak Texan landscape, Burn After Reading is is a furry comedy set in the political landscape of Washington DC and its environs. What they have in common is a lack of redemptive focus. And while No Country was gripping, Burn is a slow burn, fizzling out. To paraphrase another critic, here the Coen brothers seem to be tired, on auto-pilot, basking in the afterglow of their golden statuettes.
As in many of their other movies, the brothers Coen populate this film with quality actors some of whom they have worked with before. George Clooney (O Brother Where Art Thou, Intolerable Cruelty) plays Harry Pfarrer, a State department Marshall with a big gun and a bigger libido. Richard Jenkins (The Man Who Wasn't There, Intolerable Cruelty) is Ted Treffon, manager at Hardbodies gym. Joel's wife, Frances McDormand (Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There, Miller's Crossing), has a central role as Linda Litzke, a supervisor at the gym. She is a lonely woman, searching the on-line dating agencies for a date or a mate. Then there's John Malkovich playing foul-mouthed CIA analyst Osbourne Cox. Tilda Swinton is his wife, Katie Cox, a cold-hearted self-centered pediatrician with the bedside manner of a witch. Come to think of it, she played this role in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, although not married there. But the creme-de-la-creme is Brad Pitt, in an outrageous hairdo, as Chad Feldheimer, a personal trainer at the gym and friend to Linda. He is fabulously funny as a person who simply does not know how stupid he is. With the exception of Swinton, the writer-directors had all these particular actors in mind for the lead characters as they were developing their script. And it shows, in how well they work together.
When Osbourne is demoted and reassigned from the Balkan desk he takes it like a man -- he curses outrageously and quits unceremoniously. This does not endear him to his wife. But then again, she is sleeping with Harry and is ready to divorce Osbourne. Cox does what any suddenly unemployed man would do, he slobs out. But he can only take so much trash TV, and so starts his memoir. This memoir becomes the focal point for the movie.
Katie inadvertently copies parts of this memoir, along with Osbourne's financial portfolio, onto a CD, and this enigmatic CD is found in the locker room at Hardbodies. Chad sees it as "sigint," signals intelligence, the kind of espionage material that you must "burn after reading." He and Linda see it as their meal ticket.
When we first meet Linda, the Coens employ camera-work that lets us see her doctor but not her. She is consulting him for cosmetic surgery: not one, but four different procedures. She is "rebuilding herself". Whereas her employer rebuild bodies into hard bodies the old fashioned way, she wants to rebuild her body the quick way, with a nip here and a tuck there. But these surgeries are elective, and costly, and she does not have the money.
Chad and Linda are classic morons. They think they can blackmail the owner of the disc, Osbourne, for the money she needs for her surgeries. Their knowledge of the CIA and blackmail is what they've seen on TV. Osbourne, on the other hand, is a cynical and upset man who is not going to fork over cash to dopes, especially when the information is trivial. What ensues is a classic farce with everyone sleeping with someone else and not knowing what is going on; and with all roads leading to Osbourne.
The problem with Burn is that despite its plot complexity nothing really happens. It is simple nonsense. It could have been titled "Much Ado About Nothing" but that title was claimed by an Englishman several centuries ago. When it is over, there is a sense of emptiness. If this was an older movie on VHS, my recommendation for Burn After Reading would be to erase after viewing.
In fact, the Coen brothers seem to be almost self-deprecatory with some self-commentary on the narrative. Midway through the film Chad says, "Appearances can be deceptive." The film looks good but has no substance. Then an unnamed CIA superior (J.K. Simmons, the dad from Juno), whose room is in the carpeted corridors not the echoing linoleum hallways implying more intelligence, says to an underling, "Report back to me when it makes sense." But Burn After Reading never really makes much sense. Then at the end, he asks, "What did we learn?" And then, when this same underling is dumbstruck, he answers his own question, "Not to do it again." There is nothing to learn here. Not to watch it again, perhaps.
One of the plot motifs is idiocy. (The tag-line is: Intelligence is relative.) The two main "heroes," Chad and Linda, are morons. Their minds are simply too small to comprehend what they are doing and getting themselves into. Yet, the "intelligence officers" of the CIA, along with Harry, the State Department Marshall, are dimwitted. They do not know what is going on. These are the people we rely on to provide intelligence to the President and they are unknowing fools. The only two characters with any form of intelligence are Osbourne and Ted. Yet, Osbourne, catching Ted in an unwise act, tells him, "You represent the idiocy of today . . . You are part of a league of morons. Oh, yes. You see you're one of the morons I've been fighting my whole life." He mistakes an act of love for an act of lunacy.
Ted, a support part, is an interesting if ironical character. A former priest, he is a broken man surviving as manager of the gym. He who was formerly in the soul-building business, preaching the religion of orthodoxy, now works in body-building, preaching the religion of beautification. The soul has given way to the physical. Perhaps this is a deliberate allusion to the primacy of body over spirit. And from afar, Ted pines for Linda. Yet, she cannot see his attraction, she is blind to this person who might be perfect for her. She is focused on the physical, her body, as a means of attracting a partner.
Despite the shallowness of the film, this is perhaps the central ethical issue: who are we? Is it the soul or the body that defines who we are, our identity? Linda focused on the body, the shell that she inhabits. Her worth was proportional to her sex appeal. Until she could change her shape, her exterior, she was dissatisfied. She saw only defects and deficiencies. She could not believe anyone would really want her as she was, even though Ted clearly did. She wanted to become someone different, someone better. And she needed money, lots of it, to make this happen.
Biblically, it is not the physical that defines our identity. The holistic summation of body, soul and spirit is the composition of a person (Heb. 4:12). The body will die but the soul will live on (Matt. 10:28). Changing the body does not change the inner person. In fact, it is inevitable that the passage of time will ravage the body, and we can expect the physical to fail as we age. Yet, in contrast, we can see the inner person, the soul or spirit, grow and bloom in beauty with age. It is not guaranteed, though it can happen if our character develops. Like Linda, we may crave to be someone new, someone different, someone better. Yet God has given us a way to become a new person: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Cor. 5:17)
Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM