After the consecutive disappointments of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, I was about set to give up on the Coen Brothers. And then came No Country For Old Men, which was almost as good as their best films. After the massive success of this Oscar winning film it was announced that they were working on an extremely violent spagetti western. How Exciting! It would seem that the Coen’s were back on track, but when I saw the trailers for Burn Before Reading, I was caught off guard. Brad Pitt dancing around is kind of funny I guess, but this seemed closer to the previously mentioned disappointments than to their recent success. Still though, I jumped at the chance to catch an early screening, going in optimistic, but leaving quite disappointed. The movie plays kind of like The Big Lebowski, with simple (stupid) characters kick starting a series of events via a misunderstanding. Also like Lebowski, a large cast of characters grow entangled in a mess they don’t understand. The difference though, is that it’s hard to tell what the focal point is. Which plot is THE plot. This was my question for about 30mins and this is about how long it took me to get comfortable.
On the page, it probably does all come together nicely, but execution to the screen seems rushed and clumsy. The result of these plots never really connecting properly is a jarring effect on the audience. Joe Veroni sums up my feelings for the movie with a question: “How would I feel about this film if it wasn’t made by the Coen Brothers?” His answer, and an answer that I share, is that I would have thought it was a cheap Coen Brothers knock off. This feels like it is trying to be a Coen Brothers film, with forced quirkiness, forced complications, and definitely forced acting.
The majority of the humour comes from Malkovich, Clooney, and Pitt, and you get the impression that all three of them are quite aware of The Coen’s films and are trying to fit in with their other rich characters. The actors that play it straight are the most rewarding though, and perhaps the most fun to watch. Richard Jenkins in particular is refreshing as the sad sack gym owner pining over his employee Frances McDormand. Both he and Tilda Swinton provide a nice break from the other actors hamming it up. Malkovich is funny, but out of place. In the press release it is noted that the role was written for him, as was the case for many of the other actors in the film. And I think that the lack of a smooth connection between the characters and their stories is a result of the Coen’s wanting to work with the various actors so much that they forced a script that would accommodate them, resulting in a very fragmented narrative. Brad Pitt dancing is funny and against type to a degree, but is not enough to sustain this film.