Burn After Reading review
Another day another Coen film, today I took a look at Burn After Reading. As far a summaries go, this one is a little hard to explain. Basically, there is a man fired from a government job and his personal information is found by staff members at his local gym after his wife pulls it because she is considering a divorce. There is also another married couple, the gym staff, a couple of mistresses, a john, other government officials, and nearly every character is connected through various romantic relationships. It feels a bit overwhelming to watch, but it all somewhat makes sense in the end. This Coen brothers’ film seemed weird to me and I’m not sure that I can really put my finger on it, but I’ll give it a go.
I think what bothers me about this movie is the choice they made to write a tale of things going poorly for those who act immorally, but the outcomes for these people have nothing to do with their immoral actions. It is true that (other than John Malkovich losing his job) none of the bad things that happen in the movie would have occurred if everyone had been living honestly and morally, but all the unpleasant outcomes for the characters are not a direct result of their choices, but rather the choices of other people reacting to their choices. In other words, if at any point a character decided to take the high road, both the moral and unmoral characters would have been spared. I know that this is a stylistic choice and that not all stories need to be cautionary tales, but it does seem odd to me that no one is really the reason for their own demise.
Another thing that I found odd was that there is a definite moment in the movie where the stakes get raised and it feels like the tone of the movie has shifted. Then, the movie goes back and continues as it had before. This is also a style choice made during the writing process, but it feels like the climax of the film is then not really the climax as an equally significant moment had already occurred.
I know that it may sound like I’m down on this movie, but I did enjoy it. One thing that I really liked about the film was their use of J.K. Simmons. J.K. plays another government official who is briefed on the unfolding situation that we, as the audience, are watching. He acts as a bit of a cipher for the audience because he reacts as a normal person would (in the film he is nearly the only person who acts like a normal human being) and at the end of the movie even goes so far to say that he is confused and just happy that it’s over, and that he doesn’t know what could be learned from the situation other than not to do it again. Interesting playful insight because that is most likely what every critic was thinking after they reached the conclusion of BAR. As I said earlier, I did enjoy the film and would recommend it, but know that you are walking into a bit of an odd experience.