I went to see Burn After Reading the other day. I fully admit I went in wanting to love it and ready to defend it. I get so sick of the how often the Coen Bros. get dissed by the critics. I absolutely don't get it.
Now, I'll admit Burn is a mess. It's all over the place, but I liked that. I like the fact that there's no central protagonist. I also like the fact that you don't really like any of the characters too much. There is no one to root for in this film. When did it become manditory that we have to root for someone? Does film really have to be simply a vicarious experience where we are unchallenged because the protagonist is morally blameless? And does not having this experience mean the movie has to be serious?
These are questions that come out of a lot of Coen films. Now here's the rub. Everyone seems to think that because there's a heavy screwball element to Coen films (with really only two exceptions [blood simple and No Country For Old Men]) this means these films are shallow or lacking in substance. Even Country was often derided as an empty metaphor. I would say that is an amazingly simplistic and shallow interpretation of some very insightful and bitingly critical films.
Coen characters are not real characters. They're archetypes, many times quintessentially American archetypes, and the way these characters interact with each other and the real world holds an incredible amount of insight into the American experience. I won't go too far on this, but Burn has a lot of deep criticism about American's obssession with fitness as a means toward not health but looking good, the erosion of civil liberties and the government's increasing insistence on spying on the American people, and the list goes on. J.K. Simmons asked at the end of the film "What did we learn from all this? Well, not to do it again I guess. Whatever it was." I'm paraphrasing here. The line is right on target as we move closer to the presidential elections, and for many superficial reasons the choice of a pretty, inexperienced woman as a VP candidate who taps into Republican myths of womanhood seems to have pushed McCain into the lead. Really, did we not learn anything from the Bush presidency? Not to do it again, I guess. Whatever that was.
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