If there's a trait I hate to see in a film critic it's the willingness to dismiss with little thought a film that doesn't immediately reveal itself. So when I sense that tendency in myself, I feel a little guilty.
Take the Coen brothers. I was a fan in college but eventually decided that I'd seen all their tricks and lost interest. College seems like the right age to appreciate their stuff, and while I always wished they'd attempt something a little more ambitious with their obvious gifts, that mythical film has never materialized. I kept watching their movies up through Intolerable Cruelty, the one with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the one with the asthma inhaler gag, the one with the rapid fire conversations that — I remember noting — I'd like to watch again one day, separate from the rest of the film, if possible.
But it was the last straw. The Coens were no longer an auto-see. I skipped The Ladykillers.
Even No Country for Old Men, which I watched in the ritzy digs of Lincoln Center during the New York Film Festival, felt to me like an exercise of their technical abilities — their way with storytelling mechanics more than anything else — and an exercise that sustained a good hour before it drifted into pretensions I didn't believe.
But after a quick dismissal and the subsequent guilt, I gave it more effort. Everyone else was. It seemed only fair. Revisiting No Country for Old Men didn't turn me around, but it reminded me that their exceptionally well-crafted films do offer certain pleasures, like the pleasure of releasing a shoelace from its knot. But when the knot seems to exist for its own sake, when it seems to have been created only for me to unravel — gee, thanks — I'm inclined to use the scissors and get it over with.
Burn After Reading isn't generating the same critical dialogue that No Country for Old Men did, for whatever reason. As our sample of quotes in the grid attest (which are not, of course, representative of the universe of criticism; they're just our faves), this one is disappointing to many people who see it as the return to a lesser form. Me, I'm not sure they ever strayed very far.
But when Michael Sicinski, Mike D'Angelo, Victor Morton, and Karina Longworth actually sort of agree that Burn After Reading has merits and find plenty to roll around in (a couple of them placing it among their favorite films of the year!), maybe it's worth a little more time, even while steeling myself against the the aroma that's always steaming from the Coens stew: that we the viewers — and especially we the critics — are one of the joke's many butts. To bark in all caps at the idiocy of other reviewers, to complain that some of the film's detractors in Toronto* were "people who like to spend a lot of time bitching," is reminiscent of its own noisiest characters.
As Vic points out, cinema is used as a measure of worth in the film, but I'll add that it's not an absolute scale. In this film, everyone is looking down on someone else, just as everyone is a spy and everyone is spied upon. Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) measures her dates by whether they laugh at a particular movie that she finds funny, and she measures herself against a Hollywood ideal ("You don't have one of those Hollywood bodies," says Ted. "No, I'd be laughed out of Hollywood!" she replies, justifying her need for surgery.) But the film-within-the-film is nothing sacred to the Coens, who use it as their own yard stick to situate anyone who might enjoy it. Coming Up Daisy, they call it, with Claire Danes identified as the smiling Daisy on the poster.
I saw the film again. Sigh. I saw the film again, and I chuckled once, at Brad Pitt's first scene, mostly because of his offbeat delivery. Maybe I smiled at George Clooney's "shellfood" and "lactose reflux." But you can't argue with someone's sense of humor. If someone found the movie funny, it's funny, and I can't convince him or her otherwise. I'm Linda's loser date who sits stone-faced staring at the screen. ("You think he has a sense of humor?" "Well, I think his optometrist has a sense of humor.") Ouch. Once again the Coens are ironically inoculated.
In my review at Paste I called the cycle of put-downs in the film a "hierarchy of condescension," noting that Brad Pitt is a goof who sarcastically makes fun of other people even as the Coens make fun of him. What I notice most about the second viewing is that the hierarchy of condescension is a very flat pyramid. Every character classifies someone else as a moron, and nearly all of these folks take as much as they dish out. Reciprocal haughtiness is the agar into which the plot is injected, and if I had the energy for the train spotting that the Coens' films inspire, I'd diagram this network of finger-pointing. Malkovich calls Pitt empty-headed, and in the next shot Pitt laughs at Malkovich for thinking his bike is a Schwinn. Ted the nebbish, even Ted the nebbish, seems impatient at Linda's inability to understand his hints about looking "in your back yard." Etc.
And in the end, I guess that's where the film loses me. The circles and connections of the plot are woven impressively tight, but achieving that locking balance requires not just miles of mutual disdain but quantities of stupidity, the deus ex machina of a character study. I don't think it's a moral failing; as Sicinski points out, these aren't real people. I just think it's Saturday-Night-Live easy. To make a stupid person's behavior kick off a chain reaction, it helps to surround him with more stupid people. Say, now you've got something. But building these structures is more impressive when you don't have the crutch of idiocy.