Sunday, February 22, 2009

Muriels: Best Picture, 9th Place

Burn After Reading (103 points/11 votes)

“When I settled into my theater seat to watch Burn After Reading, and the lights dimmed and the light struck the screen and the music came on, my heart sank. I was in the wrong theater. I had to be. The music, a rapid pulse rate of a score, was telling me I was watching something very serious, and the electronic clicky-clack printout-style credits only bore that out. Clearly, I somehow misread the sign in the theater and wandered into the Don Cheadle thriller, Traitor.

“Well, no. It turns out that's just the first joke in the Coen Brothers' masterful comedy, but it's a joke that tells you everything you need to know about the film. It's the music the characters themselves would use to score the movie of their lives, the music they hear in their heads as they go about their myopic, insignificant, yet deadly serious business. It's spy music, the music of a genre that's about nation-rending secrets, double-crosses and murder -- which does in fact describe Burn After Reading, except that the nation-rending secrets only exist in the imaginations of dunderheaded Hardbodies instructors Linda and Chad, the double-crosses are about infidelity, and the murders are either accidental or out of drunken, impotent rage. The Coens are known for their screenplays that flout typical structure, throwing out such niceties as protagonists and clean act breaks in favor of setting off a narrative bomb -- in this case, Osbourne Cox quitting his job -- and watching the resulting shock wave take its course. (What made No Country For Old Men such a kick in the head was that it looked like a classical narrative and then, oops, oh wait, it's not.)

“But this screenplay, as good as it is, would be dead in the water without the actors to find the right tone, and boy, this lineup hits 'em out the park -- even Jeffrey DeMunn, an actor who I know as That Guy Who's Terrible in All Those Stephen King Movies, is absolutely perfect in his brief scene as Linda's doctor. But the MVP here is Brad Pitt. His Chad is a vain, goofy meathead who may as well be as the film's mascot. His scene with John Malkovich's Osbourne is, for me, the highlight -- an intellectual doorknob using half-remembered memories of spy movies (listening to that music in his head!) in an attempt to blackmail a guy who knows how the real world works. ‘Appearances can be deceptive,’ says Chad, his eyes ludicrously narrowed in an attempt to look cunning. The irony is that everything looks exactly as it is -- Chad's an idiot, the info on the disc is useless, spouses are obviously cheating on each other -- but everyone is so caught up in their fantasies that they can't see it.

“Yet, what makes this the best movie of the year is not how funny it is (it's hilarious), but ultimately how sad it is. Nearly all Coen Brothers films are about the deluded, self-important and destructive species known as the human race, but this is the only one that seems to truly lament those qualities. There are a lot of memorable ‘face moments’ in the film -- Linda's doctor appointment, Harry's shocked expression in the park, and of course, Chad's last smile -- but for me, the one that sums it up is the look of longing and regret on Ted's face as he shares a drink with Linda. He's the one guy who recognizes the folly of everything around him, but (as an ex-priest) has lost faith in humanity. Against his better judgment, he goes along with the idiocy, and ends up on the chopping block. “ ~ Kent M. Beeson

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