Burn After Reading
Starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Rating: Like putting lipstick on a pig.
Repackaging. It’s the name of the game these days.
Just take a look at the various political campaigns. Don’t like the policies of President Bush? Fine, your candidate never liked the guy’s programs either. Wish we could develop more of our domestic oil and gas? Well then, guess what? Your candidate has been for drilling all along. Wish we had invested more in renewable energy sources? That’s good, because your candidate has never failed to tout renewable energy. Upset over federal funding for a “bridge to nowhere?” Did you know that your candidate always opposed that turkey (er, ah, not “pig” mind you)? Tired of the ethical scandals in the halls of government? Then you’ll be happy to know that your candidate is squeaky clean. Don’t like where this country is headed because of those people in power? Well, then your candidates are just the ticket as they are magically neither Republican nor Democrat — they are mavericks for change!
I guess life really is just like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re gonna get — nor can you be sure what it is that you think you already got!
And, as is typical, repackaging of this volume and intensity is not restricted to the real world. It bleeds over into the reel world as well.
Take, for example, Burn After Reading. You may think it’s about unique, quirky characters engaged in a comic farce about blackmail over some errant computer disc containing a former CIA agent’s memoirs. But if that sounds boring and staid, then don’t worry, it’s really just a repackaged episode of something you already like — Seinfeld.
That’s right. You thought this was a movie by the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, who brought you No Country for Old Men. Nu-unh. It’s really a knock-off of that hit television sitcom of the 1990s. (Seinfeld, in case you missed it, was a show about “nothing” where four self-absorbed “friends” lived in New York City with nondescript jobs and little to do but fixate on inconsequential and petty slights and adventures.) That pretty much sums up Burn After Reading.
George Clooney isn’t really a character named Harry Pfarrer who works at the Treasury Department and sleeps around. He is really Jerry Seinfeld, who dates lots of women, is charming, quirky, jovial and generally tickled with himself.
You may think that Brad Pitt plays a dimwitted fitness center employee named Chad Feldheimer who is optimistically uninhibited but who gets in over his head. He really is Cosmo Kramer with equally quirky hair, hyperenergetic behavior, possessed of harebrained get-rich schemes, not well-versed in the English language and prone to physically comedic moments.
Don’t err in believing that John Malkovich plays a character named Osborne Cox who can’t seem to keep his job at the CIA and rubs people the wrong way. That’s right, he’s the encapsulation of George Costanza, that angry, caustic, manipulative, scheming, loud and boorish misanthrope.
And Frances McDormand? She really isn’t a vain single woman obsessed with her looks who has relationships with Clooney and Pitt. She is actually Elaine Benes, who is controlling and manipulative while also remaining vulnerable and clueless.
These self-absorbed characters bungle around trying to get the most for themselves at the expense of each other with comedic and tragic results. They engage in petty banter without really connecting with one another as they fixate on their inner lives and their personal needs and desires. Their eccentric, selfish objectives result in wild coincidences and humorous-to-outlandish predicaments.
Pitt/Kramer and McDormand/Elaine find a disk at the gym (a location that appeared in many Seinfeld episodes) that contains the memoir of ex-CIA agent Malkovich/Costanza (George’s job troubles were a familiar theme on Seinfeld). Malkovich/Costanza loses his job in a scene that is reminiscent of George’s struggles with various bosses on the show — he explodes in a fit of rage and recrimination and, instead of working things out, just storms out.
Pitt/Kramer and McDormand/Elaine decide to blackmail Malkovich/Costanza as McDormand/Elaine needs the money for plastic surgery. (Elaine always was insecure about her looks.) And Pitt/Kramer just wants to help her out (typical of Kramer).
Clooney/Jerry is not shy around women and has a relationship with McDormand/Elaine (as in Seinfeld), and also with Malkovich’s/Costanza’s wife (Jerry did get involved with some of George’s women on the show).
The Pitt/Kramer and McDormand/Elaine blackmail attempt goes horribly awry (like all similar schemes in Seinfeld) and they try to shop the disk to the Russians (just the sort of bizarre last ditch effort that the Seinfeld characters would try). Meanwhile, things spiral out of control (as in Seinfeld) and those peripherally involved look on in astonished bewilderment and can’t make heads-or-tails of what is going on.
It’s all very amusing, but when you reflect on it, you realize that not much has happened. Sort of like any episode of Seinfeld.
And if you happened to not like this review, then abracadabra, it’s not really a film review, but a column by a pundit on the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers who also really liked the movie. Or maybe he didn’t. You never know.
Doug Young is, indeed, The Statesman’s outstanding film critic. He also works for Congressman Mark Udall as an environmental policy advisor.