Freeze Frame #129: Burn After Reading

The Brothers Coen do comedy like few others do: they do it in such a way that, half the time you don’t even realize that you should be laughing your ass off. This sort of statement would normally be an insult. With the Coens, it is simply a statement of fact, and a sort of compliment.

In Burn After Reading, they assemble an enviable cast in the service of a plot that seems quite serious (even the background score is suitably dramatic) until you realize that, when you wish to summarize it, you can’t get past “So there’s this guy…”

(I used to love writing long sentences in school. Even wrote a hundred-word answer on Mother Teresa’s service to humanity in three sentences, the second of which had 68 words. Some habits die hard.)

The beauty of it is, these serious plot developments involve characters who are utterly insignificant, even though they don’t realize it. The more they stay serious, the funnier it all gets. And all the while, an ominous background score plays in the background, and a mysterious black car keeps tailing one of the major characters. Most screwball comedies involve characters who are utterly serious about what they are trying to do, even if the world and its grandmother-in-law knows it’s crazy. This is no different, but the Coens pitch the proceedings at such a peculiarly serious note that you’re almost afraid to laugh, lest you be blamed for not taking it seriously.

Sometimes, a master criminal cannot resist confessing to his crime just so that the world would know he did it. The Coens seem to have succumbed to the same temptation by putting in a ridiculously simple plot device — scenes where a CIA honcho is trying to explain the plot developments to his boss, without much success. The boss is played by J. K. Simmons, who deserves an Oscar simply for not laughing out loud. By the time the last of those briefings came around, I pretty much began laughing as soon as the scene began and was guffawing by the end of it.

Chubb: Jesus. Jesus f***ing Christ. What did we learn, Palmer?

Palmer: I don’t know, sir.

Chubb: I don’t f***ing know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.

Palmer: Yes sir.

Chubb: Although I’m f***ed if I know what we did.

Palmer: Yes sir. Hard to say.

Chubb [shaking his head]: Jesus. Jesus f***ing Christ.


14 thoughts on “Freeze Frame #129: Burn After Reading

  1. Hahaaha, I enjoyed the movie. In fact, more than I did The Big Lebowski. The laughs come hard but like you said, once the movie is over, you realize and everything seems a lot more funnier than what it started with.

    What are your thoughts on Mumbai Express? That movie falls into this kind of a genre. It is another movie where every character is extremely funny without trying to be so. I thought it deserved better.

  2. Perhaps I’m one of those who just doesn’t get the humour… I haven’t seen this one, but watching Fargo and No Country for Old Men – both gave me the chills (even though I enjoyed them very much)

  3. Adithya>> I agree. Mumbai Express deserves a better critical and commercial reception than it received, if only for a fantastic comic turn by Pasupathy (in the Tamil version) and a comparably good one by Vijay Raaz (in Hindi).

    apu>> I don’t think Fargo or No Country were meant to be taken as comedies, so I think you’re home free. Then again, with the Coens, I’m not entirely sure 🙂

    Personally, I loved Fargo but couldn’t quite see why people waxed so eloquent about it. Maybe there’s something I’m missing.

  4. Burning Reed says:

    (As in, a flaming flute or a Coen script!)

    >>”..half the time you don’t even realize that you should be laughing your ass off.” I haven’t seen this movie yet, but, thankfully, I had no such problems with another comedy I caught last week — you know, one of the ones from back in the day when they did not require you to be a rocket scientist to *get* humor.

    I chanced upon a two-DVD set of six Carole Lombard films from the 30s, and my life’s so much the better for it! Jeez, where the
    heck was she, all this while? I LOVE her!

    Hands Across the Table (incidentally, my second Fred McMurray film after Double Indemnity) is special also because I happen to dig films that conclude with a coin toss AND have the coin land on its side — I mean, what are the odds? 🙂

  5. Ramsu, I too laughed out loud after that final exchange in the movie – HILARIOUS!

    No country for old men shows how chilling Coen brothers’ movies can be if it were not for the peculiar streak of their dark comedy.

    I consider Fargo a comedy. Each tim I watch, I laugh at William Macy, Steve Buscemi, W. Macy’s father-in-law’s sidekick, 2 prostitutes, Average Joe informer clearing Snow on his walkway and many others..

  6. Giri>> I found Fargo to be eminently watchable, and an interesting movie per se. But why is it ranked so high on critics’ lists? That part still escapes me.

    Reed>> You may be among the few who still get ecstatic about a two DVD set of Carole Lombard films. To paraphrase a quote from a movie I love, “You are a Burning Reed, standing tall, waving boldly in the corrupt sands of commerce” 😀

    Banno>> Most Coen Bros movies are safe bets, I think. They’re hardly ever uninteresting.

  7. B. Reed says:

    Hey, you made my day with that movie quote! (Which movie was that, btw?)

    And, to return the favor (not that I think you’d find the quiz category “Deaths and Dates” particularly fascinating, but thought the fact that Howard Hughes died 33 years ago on board a plane that was transporting him to a Houston hospital from the Bahamas might light up some of those irony-loving brain cells), here goes! 🙂

  8. That was from You’ve got mail.

    I tried that quiz, and fared so miserably it’s not even funny. Clearly, I don’t see enough dead people. Not that my other five senses are working too well, for that matter.


  9. Six Cents says:

    Taking my cue from today’s Sesame Street’s number of the day, here’s (three times) my 2 cents — just chill, chill, chill, man! It’s JUST a quiz. (I know, I know!) 😀

    And speaking of dead people, the TS Eliot poem comes to mind. Did I say March was a crazy month? Then April is plain cruel. I’m so glad it’s almost, well, over and out!

    April is the cruellest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain.
    Winter kept us warm, covering
    Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
    A little life with dried tubers.

    ~The Burial of the Dead

  10. Circe at the Circus says:

    Although I’m happy to not beat “death” to death, my comic-strip writing pals presumably have no such intentions! It does seem like (talks of) death and taxes are inevitable, come April.

    Check out yesterday’s (and today’s) Pardon My Planet strip for some hilarious takes on “death.”

    What made my day, however, is today’s Adam At Home: Motorcycle guy, sphere of death, ladies standing on galloping horses, the Buick…hey, I’m all in! 😀

  11. Circe at the Circus says:

    P.S: And oh, you certainly wouldn’t want to miss Cleopatra’s final (g)asp, would you? 😀 (Hey, isn’t it also what Michael Stipe croons about in Man on the Moon?) So here goes. Beware though that this link, um, expires in a week.

  12. B. Reed says:

    Just when I thought Wordsworth was the only soul to be dazzled by the daffodil’s dance, I came upon Amy Lowell delighting in its Sun romance! (The last three lines of her ode To an early daffodil are reminiscent of that reed quote from YGM that you called my attention to, no?)

    Thou yellow trumpeter of laggard Spring!
    Thou herald of rich Summer’s myriad flowers!
    The climbing sun with new recovered powers
    Does warm thee into being, through the ring
    Of rich, brown earth he woos thee, makes thee fling
    Thy green shoots up, inheriting the dowers
    Of bending sky and sudden, sweeping showers,
    Till ripe and blossoming thou art a thing
    To make all nature glad, thou art so gay;
    To fill the lonely with a joy untold;
    Nodding at every gust of wind to-day,
    To-morrow jewelled with raindrops. Always bold
    To stand erect, full in the dazzling play
    Of April’s sun, for thou hast caught his gold.

    ~ Amy Lowell

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