The Flip Side of the Coin

Occasional Pop Theology contributor Daniel Skidmore provides a quick review of the Coen brothers’ latest film, Burn After Reading.

My friends and I cringe at Sarah Palin’s desire to impose her creationist views and zealous Christian morals on an entire country.  However, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film, Burn After Reading, we see the flip side of this coin and laugh not at fundamentalist Christian morals, but at people who seem utterly devoid of anything but selfish desires.  The characters in this film do not once mention God unless it is in a string of curses.  Moreover, despite loads of deception, promiscuity, adultery, and espionage, the characters never once discuss ethics or the lack thereof.

This brutally funny movie pits an ex-CIA agent, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), against two moronic gym employees, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), in a fight over a disc filled with “top secret” information.  While this movie does not necessarily fit into the genres of spy films or slapstick comedy, it is an example of the Coen brothers at their best.  Burn After Reading is an example of how the Coen brothers often defy the laws of genre to create uniquely humorous and stinging movies.

Pitt, as an airhead gym instructor, inspires laughter as he dances to his headphones and meanders through life to the beat of his own drum, or iPod.  George Clooney is equally funny as the adulterous nympho, Harry Pfarrer, who insists that he must go on runs when not talking incessantly or fornicating.  However, the movie belongs to Malkovich and McDormand.  McDormand’s character, on a desperate search for funds to purchase “much needed” plastic surgery, not only turns in a comedic performance but also elicits genuine sympathy as someone mired in loneliness.  Malkovich also offers a brilliant performance as the foul-mouthed ex-CIA agent who is fed up with the world of idiocy in which he lives.

I often find that the strength of the Coen brother’s films is their ability to transcend one genre.  Although I would describe this movie as a comedy, with moments of brutal and realistic violence, it elicited genuine emotion from me.  This movie evoked both sadness and laughter at a world filled with technology and bureaucracy, a world filled with sex but not love, a world where ethics and morals do not exist when there is personal gain to be had, a world where we become so self-important that we become our own gods.  This is the world of Burn After Reading, this is the flip side of the coin.