13 September 2008

Review: Burn after Reading

Genre: Comedy (Farce)

One can almost feel the two Coens exhaling a cathartic sigh of insouciance and relief in their latest project, Burn after Reading, the nearly chaotic farce that follows their pin-straight and somber No Country for Old Men (2007). Equal parts classic comedy, ensemble piece, a-traditional narrative, and tongue-in-cheek establishment-directed ribbery; the new film zips through a series of frenetic and whip-lashing vignettes that tumble and weave a dynamic but somewhat disjointed, somewhat nihilistic, portrait of the scarcely noticed kind of simmering that can and likely does frequently go on in the lives and minds of niche-blocked American citizens. Skipping staccato from the frustrated, slightly alcoholic, and overworked government employee (notably - chuckle - a Princeton grad.) to the constantly awed, thoroughly energetic, and perpetually gum-chewing personal trainer and back again; or even from the icily perfected, sweet yet savage career woman, stuck in the enclave of a frozen marriage, to a consistently unsatisfied, vaguely desperate, and chatteringly superficially assertive aging bachelorette and back again; the piece makes a melancholy but delicious mish-mosh of the jolts rattling around in the collective American psyche, jolts that are, when apparent, frequently repressed - pushed back, inwardly directed, lest their live-wire antics catch wind and collide them with the effective means of others. And, as such a portrait, the film does amply well. The acting is solid, if sometimes a bit caricatured, and the balance of the characters is fair, never alighting upon any long enough for the audience to become truly invested in his or her individual character - for, clearly, individualism is not what the film is about.
However, as a conceit regarding the politics of daily interactions, trust and fidelity, the idealism of partnerships (both romantic and platonic), and the aspirations for a something more, the film definitely does fall flat upon its comically well-rounded ass. There are simply too many puns, ridiculous dalliances, and needle-sharp eccentricities, to balance such a smooth and delicate matter very well. Furthermore, wading deep into the uncertain waters of absurdity that, while at one moment they may bear one up to a marvelous height, can just as handedly bellow out and down, exposing the grimy and empty rock-surface of the floor beneath; the piece regrets its own decisions and tosses too vigorously from moments of comedy to those of drama, for the audience to indeed be comfortable, no less metaphysically engaged. In short, the whole thing seemed like an extended quip, done merely for the rhythmic and tossing jaunt of it - much as one would a dizzying roller-coaster - rather than for the investigatory, question-making effect significant of others of these fine writers'-directors' films - a quality which -- let me be clear -- is fine, if that be what they two intended by it all. I however am not thoroughly convinced that such complete triviality was the case; the Coens, in my mind, cannot write other than in, yes pleasing, but primarily investigatory manner; and for that fact and the bearing that it must have on my review of this, their latest work, I must not commend them.
Highest praise, on the other hand, is neverthless due to Mr. Pitt's thoroughly delightful portrayal of the aforementioned personal trainer, whose reach extends a bit deeper into the mire than he can quite entirely grasp. Bouncy and vibrant as he needed to be, the rôle was the finest he's done in years; and in my book should not go without due course of recognition(: See my now updated right column).
But as for Burn after Reading itself:

Grade: B-, fun but deleteriously discombobulated.

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