Saturday, September 13, 2008

Movie Review: Fargo - I Mean - Burn After Reading

The Coen Brothers are two of the most memorable filmmakers of out time, blurring the lines between comedy, tradgedy, intelligence and stupdity. Their latest effort, Fargo, is a dark, satyrical look at people with a misplaced sense of superiority. Muderous, and darkly hilarious, mayhem insues when their stories intertwine. The audience chuckles when they should wince, and...wait, did I say Fargo? Oh, sorry. I meant Burn After Reading. The films are so much alike that I came out of the theater believing I had seen a remade, slightly less impressive version of the 1996 comedic thriller.

After more thought, however, I realized that the films' dissimilarities are the real theme. Perhaps the Coens intentionally wove the two films so closely together in order to display how their own views have changed in the last decade. While the overall tone may be the same, Burn After Reading carries a much different, and perhaps more poignant, message.

The film follows Osborne Cox, played perfectly by John Malcovich, a recently demoted CIA agent whose false sense of superiority makes him quit rather than swallow the insult of demotion, all time oblivious to the fact that his wife, Tilda Swinton, is cheating on him with a womanizing George Clooney. In his retirement Cox decides to write his memoirs, which he is infinitely careful to pronounce "mem-wahs." They accidentally fall into the hands of Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand, two bumbling gym managers. When their semi-honest attempt to return Cox's memoirs are misinterperted as blackmail, chaos insues, and everything is further complicated by Clooney's romantic involvement with McDormand.

We have come to expect a certain dark brand of comedy from the Coens, and Burn After Reading doesn't disappoint. The characters' complete lack of understanding of what is going on, and their inability to deal with it sensibly, is played out with dry hilarity. Just as we have come to expect laughs, we also expect chills. With the possible exception of Pitt, due to his complete ignorance and stupidity, we feel no remorse as the characters' lives end in bloody, tragic fashion. Each is deeply faulted, a collection of bad people doing worse things.

How all of this is treated, however, is where the film differs from the Fargo model. Everything is colder, less human. Bodies, and this time minds, are tossed about in the film's climax, where the film reveals its intentions.
The audience is left somewhat dumbfounded, and, initially, I believed that this was just sloppy filmmaking. The moral, if it can be called that, of Fargo is evident - people, both good and bad, are capable of terrible things, but they are still people. In the final minutes of Fargo we see William H. Macy taken by the police, screaming and crying. While we by no means feel sorry for his character, at least we are shown that he is still human, still subject to emotion. Burn After Reading ends, abrubtly, on a note of complete indifference. And that's its point.

I may be reading too much into this film (no pun intended), but it seems as if the Coen Brother's have taken their formula from Fargo and updated it for a new decade. Maybe they've been left numb by the events of last few years. This case could certainly be made with No Country for Old Men, and I believe it also applies here. If Fargo is post-modern art, then Burn After Reading is post-post-modern. It's not as entertaining, but just as telling.

4 of 5 stars


filip De Cavel said...

Thanks for the nice review. Could you elaborate on 'If Fargo is post-modern art, then Burn After Reading is post-post-modern'. In what sense?


strangelet said...

I immediately made this connection between the two movies as well. I was thinking of it more like comment on the coldness of large scale moral control (cia in burn after reading) versus local control (the police department in fargo). Both are equally ineffective apparently, though at least in fargo you get a nice little moral.