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Now and Then – Burn After Reading and The Big Lebowski


     NowBurn After Reading (2008)
         Then: The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Intelligence Community
           The Lack-of-Intelligence Community

A comedy of manners set in Washington D.C., the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading comes right after their Oscar-winning epic No Country for Old Men . This isn’t the first time the Coens have followed a dark hit with a light comedy: after 1996’s Fargo came 1998’s The Big Lebowski . As to the two more recent movies, they’ve got more in common than an impeccable sense of timing…

Crime and Confusion
In Burn After Reading, an ex-CIA analyst (John Malkovich, hilariously fussy) misplaces an incriminating CD-ROM; two gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) blackmail him for its return. In The Big Lebowski, a pair of ill-prepared bowling buddies become the go-betweens in a kidnapping plot. But while both look like comedy spins on crime capers, Burn After Reading is even looser structurally than The Big Lebowski. That CD is just a McGuffin whereas for The Big Lebowski, the crime is key.

Movies That Mock Movies
Each movie pokes fun at Hollywood conventions: In Burn After Reading, you’ll see spy-flick style satellite-images of Washington, computerized location titles setting the scene, and a score made up of bombastic Taiko drums. The Big Lebowski casts the net even wider: The opening’s a joke on Western conventions, the whole film riffs on private eye flicks, and there’s even a mock-porno musical number that references Hugh Hefner and Busby Berkeley. Ultimately, because Burn After Reading‘s satire is more targeted, the blade slides in deeper every time.

The Usual Gang of Idiots
Burn After Reading is being sold as an ensemble piece; the cast is listed alphabetically on a poster with no photos. The Big Lebowski‘s promos put Jeff Bridges front and center even if the film was a trademark Coen ensemble flick. Interestingly, both are loaded with actors the Coens have worked with before: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons in Burn After Reading; Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, John Polito, Peter Stomare and John Turturro in The Big Lebowski. The Coens tend to be fiercely loyal when it comes to actors because they like working with people who get their deadpan style.

The Verdict
Burn After Reading has bowed to mixed reviews; at the same time, it’s worth noting that when it was first released, The Big Lebowski was outright dismissed. I don’t think that Burn After Reading will become the cult hit that The Big Lebowski has but love it or hate it, you won’t be able to forget it.

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