Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
There's a rule in the world of modern film that we all know – even if none of us has ever actually learned it before – that states that any movie that is not screened for reviewers before its release is unambiguously, unilaterally terrible. This makes an awful lot of sense; in today's world of media and internet saturation, a fimgoer could get their hands on countless opinions about a movie prior to their first chance to actually pay money to see it. Thus, if a movie is truly horrible, then terrible buzz could kill it right out of the gate. However, if the studio can prevent those reviews from coming out until after its opening weekend, then there's a chance (especially given the fact that movie trailers can make just about anything look good) that at least a small crowd can be generated at the very beginning, to hopefully recoup some of the inevitable losses.
However, I have learned this week that, at least amongst the world's movie critics, there is an addendum to this rule: if a movie is screened for critics mere days before its release date, this is a portent almost as dire as no screening at all. The thinking here is that while refusing to show a movie lets everyone know that it sucks, showing it at a point where most writers can't review it in time for their deadline is nothing more than shallow trickery hiding a similarly terrible film. If this addendum was true, then there would be no point in reviewing Burn After Reading, since the congregated critics before the screening had already determined its quality, going so far as to elicit a group promise not to use “Burn After Watching” as their lead. Luckily for all of us, this is one rule that does not hold up in all circumstances.
Burn After Reading is one of those movies for which a synopsis is nearly impossible. When Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) quits/is fired from the NSA (or some facsimile thereof), he decides to write a book (which he calls his “mem-WAHS”), much to the enragement of his wife (Tilda Swinton). This anger causes her to initiate divorce proceedings, which includes breaking onto his computer and making copies of all his financial information. The resultant CD, as you might be able to guess, gets misplaced soon after. Now mix in a serial adulterer (George Clooney), an empty-headed personal trainer with delusions of grandeur (Brad Pitt), a health club employee with serious self-image issues (Frances McDormand), and Sledge Hammer working for J. Jonah Jameson, and set the pot to boil.
Now whether you are still stung from some of the Coen Brothers' recent comedy missteps (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), fearful of a movie that comes out less than a year after the filmmakers won an Oscar, or a movie critic pissed about only having two days to write a review, the odds are you have pretty low expectations for this movie. If that is the case, please let me put your fears to bed. Burn After Reading is a very fun movie. The characters are either deliciously mean, delightfully dumb, or despicably shallow, and you get hooked into their drama despite yourself. I loved watching how this situation got progressively worse and more complicated, and I honestly had no idea how the Coen Brothers were going to wrap the whole thing up. Alas, neither did they, and thus Burn After Reading ends up as yet another movie to build itself to an awesome climax…and then fall short right before delivering it.
As in many cases, the performances make the movie, and Burn After Reading has its share of great ones. McDormand's Linda is so pathetic, and so deluded in her belief that plastic surgery is the answer to all her woes, that you want to hug her even as she continually exacerbates her problems. Clooney once again shows himself to be the ultimate movie star; he is effortless in his role, and exudes that quality that makes all men want to be his friend, and all women want to be his girlfriend. Pitt is exuberant, though for my taste he appears to be reveling in his “common man” role a bit too much, as though we will just be overjoyed to watch such royalty pretend to be normal. And lastly, no one short of Busey himself does anger bordering on insanity quite like John Malkovich.
All in all, Burn After Reading is not going to go down as a classic, and it certainly doesn't measure up to No Country for Old Men. However, neither does it suck, and it excels far more than other films of its ilk specifically because it's made by the creators of No Country. So while short deadlines and inconvenient screening times might cause many reviewers to root against it from the start, this is perfect opportunity to try out that “see for yourself” mantra you've heard so much about. If you like it, go out and extol it, thereby showing yourself to be an erudite filmgoer that doesn't rely on mainstream media to determine what you see. And, if you hate it, walk outside at the earliest opportunity, and stare at the sun, thereby allowing your eyes to “Burn after Watching.” (Thanks for the tag, suckers!)