Monday, 20 October 2008

burn after reading (d. joel & ethan coen)

You can sort of see what they were trying to achieve. And if they'd pulled it off, it would have been great. A comedy thriller about paranoia set in Washington DC. Almost, as the poster suggests, Hitchcockian, and ripe for paranoid times. When Malkovich storms out of the meeting after being informed of his dismissal from the CIA Balkan office, he hollers, 'this is political' and for a fleeting moment I thought this was going to be a biting satire on Plamegate. Which someone should be making, and who better than the Coen brothers?

On second thoughts... There are various problems with Burn, which basically, to use the kind of language Malkovich and Swinton relish, fuck it up. Completely. Firstly the narrative isn't as clever as it thinks it is. The fact that Pitt (let's not even bother with the character names) blackmails Malkovich who's married to Swinton who's sleeping with Clooney who shoots Pitt has more of the feel of a Washington after dinner drinking game than a movie narrative. It would be more surprising if all these stars weren't going to be connected than that they are. At the end, the CIA chief meets the CIA underling and they talk about the mess that's been made, and how complicated it's become, and you can't help thinking: Nice try, chicos, but the truth is it's not that complex. To paraphrase their last movie, if this is the mess it won't really do until the next one comes along, you need to make it messier, now! The second problem is that the plot hinges on a notion of paranoia - everyone's paranoid and if they're not they should be. You can't see a black car without someone thinking it's an agent of Hades come to whisk them away. Except that, when there aren't any cars around, no-one seems very paranoid at all. Most of all Mr Clooney, who attempts to veer between laid-back, bearded George and eye-rolling, crazy George in the bat of an eyelid. The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that Clooney isn't and never will be Nicholson. Which is fair enough, as there's only room for one Nicholson in film-land, and George has other attributes. The last problem with the film, as the previous one implies, is the casting. Everyone's a star, they all seem to want to try to outshine one another. Which presumably made the film great fun to make, but a series of turns does not make for an integrated movie; it makes for something rather closer to panto. Something which one senses Malkovich has come to believe he was born for, ever since those people started running around his head and warping his actor-ego completely out of shape.

There's probably more problems. Not least of which that, once again, this doesn't really feel like a Coen brothers movie. It's neither strange enough nor dark enough, and doesn't have a charismatic performance from Badem to compensate. You know this because there's an exception that proves the rule - the moment when Malkovich takes an axe to the guy from Six Feet Under. It's shot from a distance, no close-ups, and for a brief moment Malkovich's psychosis seems completely believable. Not because of his performance, but because of the way the moment's filmed, with a cold terror lurking behind the everyday normality of a pretty suburban street in the capital of the Western world.

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