Monday, October 6, 2008

Burn After Reading: Laughing at What We See in the Mirror

After winning Best Picture with their suffocating somber No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading marks a return to the eccentric brand of screwball comedy that produced such classics as The Hudsucker Proxy and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. At least that’s what I had been told and believed upon entering the theater. Though Burn After Reading was certainly eccentric with a touch of screwball here and there, the movie certainly doesn’t comfortably fit any category currently available; indeed, what makes the Coen comedies great is the sheer impossibility of marketing them accurately to consumers. Familiar labels like the broad and inclusive genre “comedy” or even more narrow subgenres like “screwball comedy” cannot even come close to conditioning our expectations accurately to what we see on screen. What we end up seeing is more expansive and complex than what we signed up for.

In typical Coen-esque fashion, Burn After Reading hurtles the audience into an impressively interwoven plot. Characters as widely diverse as an ex-CIA analyst, two oddball clerks at Hardbodies Gym, a philandering federal marshal, and an icily condescending pediatrician are elaborately connected in a web of philandering, light treason, involuntary manslaughter, absurd plain-view homicide, and bucket loads of pure bungling and human folly. The appropriate backdrop for this mayhem is Washington D.C., our country’s center of intelligence, and the Coens derive a couple of their best laughs from their send-up of CIA culture.

“Intelligence,” we’re told in the movie’s tag-line, “is relative.” Most everything in Burn After Reading is relative. The plot veers slightly towards coherence before losing all meaningful intelligibility. Relativism hangs over this movie like a palpable cloud, and we’re forced to watch the moral confusion, chaos, and irrational paranoia that results from losing contact with the light of day. The characters and the events they get inextricably wrapped up in are elaborately and smartly connected, yet one cannot call Burn After Reading a story, since that implies a beginning point and movement toward a meaningful conclusion. The vast array of characters grope towards happiness that the Coens continually tell us doesn’t exist.

What separates Burn After Reading from the Coen’s previous unclassifiable comedies is the nature of the laughter. In previous Coen offerings the facile label of “screwball comedy” hid a more complex movie; in Burn After Reading the label is entirely misleading. Sure I laughed a lot, but not in the way I’m used to laughing having been bred on the Marx Brothers, the Stooges, and David Zucker. Burn After Reading relies on absurdity, the same comedic formula as Groucho Marx; yet it hits uncomfortably close to home in a way no true comedy ever does. The absurdity is terribly discomfiting because it’s an awfully accurate portrait of our culture, and the Coen’s trademark comedic exaggeration barely veils the nihilistic reality underneath.

At several points in the movie, the Coens make it patently obvious that Burn After Reading was never intended to be a conventional comedy. Without blinking an eye they break the cardinal comedic rule of “do no real harm” to startle us from the feeling that this is a true comedy and thus a caricature and removed somewhat from reality. An unexpected and particularly brutal homicide forces us to judge their “comedy” in a different light; perhaps the farce is not so much a farce as a depiction of a real disease. The characters are indeed overly eccentric, but their obsessions, paranoia, and blind groping for transient happiness could be found in every city in America.

Burn After Reading could, as Michael Medved labeled it, be considered a “dark comedy”, though even that genre tag is misleading since dark comedies traditionally accentuate and dwell on the darkness, while Burn After Reading does no such thing. Despite its genuinely hilarious screwball moments, Burn After Reading is still a thoroughly uncomfortable movie. Most of the laughter it generates can be aptly compared to raucous mirth that reportedly followed novelist Franz Kafka’s private reading of his short story Metamorphosis, a particularly morbid tale of a traveling salesman who copes with the horror of having been transformed into vile bug. Metamorphosis certainly isn’t known for its clever zingers, but the laughter was generated by the story’s spot-on encapsulation of the modern dilemma of man’s plight severed from God. In Burn After Reading we also laugh at what we see in the mirror, and I think most of us would rather not pay for the pleasure.

It makes sense that Burn After Reading’s initial boom of box office success was short lived, considering they marketed it with one of the most misleading trailers in film history. Our culture hungers for meaning, and postmodernism will never sell outside of academies. If only the Coens had the faith to offer a little transcendent meaning and a little hope that there’s a way out of our predicament. Unfortunately, all we get is terrible absurdity.