Burn After Reading
Burn after Reading is a good movie. It’s directed by the Coen Brothers. It has great dialog, is heavily stylized in a good way, and the actors kill it. But in a lot of ways I feel it is more a movie composed of good scenes, rather than a movie that works more as a cohesive whole. Case in point - I wanted to watch this movie because I came across this and this clip. These are hilarious, I love how they feel like they are part of a play, that it’s so over the top and absurd. It was enough to make me curious and go see the whole movie. Having seen the whole thing, these remail my favorite scenes. Now, for these two characters, these are the only time we see them; they aren’t main characters. My overall impression is that if I had just watched the good scenes on youtube, in any order, I would still have a pretty good experience, and about as much understanding of what was going on.
A quick rundown of the characters. There are the office guys, the Analyst who has just been fired and wants to write a book, the Analyst’s wife who is going to divorce him, and is sleeping with the Treasury Guy. The Treasury guy is cheating on his wife with the Analyst’s wife and and also everyone on online dating, including Linda the Gym Lady. Linda the Gym Lady is friends with Chad, who is a personal trainer at the gym, and the both work for the Gym Guy, who either owns or manages the gym.
The plot revolves around a CD, which is the McGuffin. It’s a dump of the Analyst’s computer, which includes his memoir he is writing, and also (unknown to him) his financials. The CD comes from his wife, who downloaded his hard drive for information in preperation for the divorce divorce. It’s left at the gym by the Analyst’s Wife’s Divorce Lawyer’s Secretary, which doesn’t matter because they just get the info off the hard drive. The hard drive winds up in the hands of Linda the Gym Lady and Chad, whose defining character trait is being as much as possible like the person you imagine bearing the name Chad. The pair plan to use this information, which they are quite sure is spy shit, to make money to pay for cosmetic surgery for Linda the Gym Lady, which she wants to help with her online dating.
Got that? It’s okay if you don’t because the movie isn’t’ as interested in it’s plot as it’s characters and dialog, which is fantastic throughout.
Two things work really well, and the best things in this movie that lets the plot not matter very much, and the first of those is that the CD and data everyone cares so much about isn’t very important. The Russian’s don’t want it, the CIA is more baffled than concerned by what’s going on, the Analyst guy played by John Malkovich is mid level and was never as important as he thinks we was, and Chad and Linda have no idea what they have in the first place. This helps sell everything in a tragic but black comedy tragic way. The fact that everyone is terrible makes the terrible things they do to each other more fun than sad. There is also the Big Lebowski thing where everyone thinks they are in a different genre of movie, and almost all of them are wrong. The gym characters think they are in a spy thriller when most of the characters are living in a nihilistic take down of suburb life kinda of pretentious drama, no one realizing they are in a farce except maybe the CIA, who are mostly exasperated. (The real genre is a frace). This keeps things moving, when things are both more serious than everyone things they are, while at the same time the events are of almost no importance in the grand scheme of things.
I do have feelings of disconnectedness throughout the movie. I think part of it is that is that there is this sense of nihilism through everything – it’s the suburban setting, the pettiness of the characters, the fact that the plot refuses the revolve around anything that matters. This never lets the story stop from being funny, the writing is really good in all the exchanges and dialog, but I feel if you were try to assemble a larger theme, the plot doesn’t come together as whole very well. A lot of the drama comes from very improbably coincidences – the Gym Lady dates the Treasury guy who is sleeping with the Analyst’s wife – and since unlikely coincidences drive a lot of the drama, there isn’t really a cohesive theme you can find from the narrative. This works to make the movie a good farce, but this makes it harder for the movie to say anything. The best the CIA can come up with boils down to “I guess we learn not to do it again. Fucked if I know what we did.”